Up and Coming: EJ Hill Channels the Emotional Power of Endurance Art

  • Portrait of EJ Hill in his studio at the Studio Museum in Harlem by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

    Portrait of EJ Hill in his studio at the Studio Museum in Harlem by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

“Getting started can be the hardest thing—putting the first word on a page or putting the first mark on a canvas,” says EJ Hill, standing in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s spacious third-floor artist-in-residence studios overlooking 125th Street, dressed in head-to-toe denim with shiny black loafers and a cap. “I knew that if I just started with something familiar, it could hold my interest for a while. Then it would lead into the real artwork. So I went deep down a roller coaster rabbit hole. And I wasn’t able to drop it.”

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Since Hill moved from L.A. to Harlem in October of last year and settled into the museum as one of their current artists in residence, he has been drawn back to a childhood obsession: amusement parks. “When I was little, I had these notebooks and they’d all be covered with roller coaster drawings, then in the margins they would have the stats (how many times it went upside down, and maximum speed). I had Hot Wheels tracks that would loop around my room, and K’NEX roller coaster sets—it’s been a thing. I’m deep in it,” he says with a smile.

Hill is soft-spoken, alert, and sensitive in person. (At one point in our interview he requests to ask me some questions about myself to even the balance between us.) He grew up in southern Los Angeles and rarely engaged with art as a child. His entree to art school came on the recommendation of the artist Margaret Nomentana, whom he met while at a summer camp in Maine. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see myself,” he says. “When I went to art school, suddenly things made sense. The possibilities for developing ideas and sharing them, and engaging in dialogue, challenging my own positions on things. I felt like I was expanding, weekly. And it was a growth that I wanted more and more. It was like an addiction. It is an addiction.”

A few tight drawings of criss-crossed lines that resolve into the scaffolding of vintage roller coasters dot the walls of Hill’s studio, across from the beginnings of a large-scale wooden structure that takes the form of a ’coaster incline. When you look at this current body of work, it may not be apparent that Hill is primarily known for engaging in ephemeral work: physically and psychologically intense performances that reflect the violence enacted on queer and black bodies, such as one in which he brought a large metal fence into a gallery, attached himself to it via jump rope, and skipped over it for two hours before collapsing with exhaustion on the floor, prompting bystanders to rush over and attend to him. For his MFA thesis, he took a 30-day vow of silence, ending it with a guttural scream. (The Studio Museum’s Artists-in-Residence show, opening in July, will include performance work by Hill, but for the now the artist is keeping that under wraps.)

He found his way to performance via exposure to the work of extreme performance artist Chris Burdenwho once had a friend shoot him in the arm as a form of art. “I saw this video of Chris Burden’s collected works. And it was like… what? This is the artistic output that’s being valued on an institutional level. The idea that this could be art too just opened up a whole world of possibilities for the type of thing that I could do.” Hill also discovered his own ability to provoke after a friend became alienated by a work he was making. “I think it was then that I noticed I might be chasing something that may not sit well with a lot of people, and I started to claim the word ‘artist.’ I’m venturing into territory that freaks people out. Something’s happening here. So I ran into its direction.”

For Hill, the catharsis that comes from endurance performances is not so far removed from the emotional arc and physical release of an amusement park ride. “There’s a gut feeling,” he says of the rush of a roller coaster. “The whole experience is really physical in a way that makes sense to me. Submitting control to this thing, this machine that has no other purpose than to terrify or to excite. There’s something inherently human about that. The drive to go higher and faster, always trying to push ourselves to the limits of what the body can withstand.”

Though Hill’s performances often induce a strong response from his audience, it’s his own internal experience of the work that motivates him. “I do all of them for me—to try and manage my experience in the world,” he says. “I used to joke that the performances were really deliberate ways for me to control mini-breakdowns. And if I set up parameters for breaking down, then I knew I could be safe. It’s asking to be taken care of and saying: This is my situation, this is what it’s like living in this skin, in this world, and it’s really fucking difficult sometimes.”

  • Left: EJ Hill, I Still Believe in Anchors, 2015. Right: EJ Hill, Fish Out of Water (for Dajerria Becton), 2015. Images courtesy of the artist.

    Left: EJ Hill, I Still Believe in Anchors, 2015. Right: EJ Hill, Fish Out of Water (for Dajerria Becton), 2015. Images courtesy of the artist.

Hill finds respite from a practice that is physically and emotionally demanding (and from events taking place in the world aroud him) through quieter art forms. “Sometimes I say performance is my first love, so there are times when I feel like I’m moving away from it just to breathe and get space, but not necessarily to cut all ties with it,” he says. His paintings—he makes colorful, abstract canvases populated with biomorphic forms and lines like swimming-pool noodles—offer him that space. “It’s a slow-down. It’s a reboot and recharge space for me. A quiet sigh,” he says of working with brush and canvas. “The most recent paintings were made amid the very public murders of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and the heartbreaking handling of Dajerria Becton. The only things I really had the emotional or mental capacity for were simple shapes and bright colors.”

Through his varied practice, Hill has found room to confront and negotiate the conditions of his reality, as well as transcend them through a kind of performative self-erasure. “Being alive is hard. Being alive is so complicated. Being alive in a black body, being alive in a queer body, it comes with certain things that others don’t have to think about,” Hill says. “I’ve been storing these experiences in my body since childhood. I feel like the world has been preparing me for this type of work since the day I was born.”

  • Portrait of EJ Hill in his studio at the Studio Museum in Harlem by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

    Portrait of EJ Hill in his studio at the Studio Museum in Harlem by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.

—Tess Thackara