“I know what it feels like to have my body policed,” E.J. Hill crooned into a grated, vintage microphone, wearing an impeccable tuxedo and standing next to a piano player busy massaging a Steinway. On occasion of the opening of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, a '50s jazz singer scene emerged in the middle of the fair lounge. As fairgoers hovered around the bar, immersed in conversation and the business of the fair, Hill was asking if he, a queer black man, could be a feminist.
Hill edged off his first bar, shaking his head and waiting eight counts before a second sound came out of his mouth. Then, into the bustle of crowds and clatter, Hill was improvising lyrics: “Do I have a place at your table? I don’t know if I have the right.” Hill sang about the problems of difference in a context in which art can start to look the same. He sang until the veins emerged from his neck and the sweat poured down his face, and if you were watching you clenched your fist as if to help him finish out a note. He seemed prepared to go on forever.
The context only made the performance more poignant. A small crowd gathered to applaud Hill’s seductive body rolls, egg on his confessions, forming a protective circle to divide him from fairgoers who read him as mere entertainment. More, Hill was roaring in the language of critical theory, could we all “examine our privilege,” while at the same time across town, Joe Scanlan—a white male artist—was self-consciously puppeteering a black female character as his performative surrogate. Hill’s performance was a heartening reminder that art fairs emerge because there are artists. And artists, the brave ones at least, the ones making work worth looking at, don’t care who’s watching.
Written by Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal.
Photo of E.J. Hill and fair lounge by Stefanie Keegan/Getty Images. Hill's performance presented by LAXART.