LOS ANGELES — Flowers have been imbued with meaning through the centuries. The Victorian language of floriography designated displays of emotions to certain blooms (yellow carnations stood for “disdain”). Sakura, or cherry blossoms, mark a new season in Japan, and serve as a reminder that many facets of life are temporary. And the idiom of giving someone their flowers — in other words, acknowledging and praising the living while they’re still alive — becomes even more powerful in reference to the contributions of Black and brown people usually left out of mainstream history conversations.
As part of the year-long Wanlass Artist in Residence at Oxy Arts, EJ Hill decided to focus on creating large-scale paintings of flowers — a departure from his usual work. Wherever We Will to Root is a sparse show, with eight pieces in total. The works largely came to life through acrylic, with some graphite and neon elements incorporated (plus two installation pieces). For the show, Hill chose to focus on joy.
Yet a bittersweet current runs through the exhibition. Titles like “please send rain” and “even the clouds are losing sleep” feel tethered to a sense of melancholy. Even “white rose hymnal,” with its vibrant pink background and sumptuous blooms, feels like a somber image in some ways. The arrangement sits atop a delicately outlined vessel that hints at glass, as if it’s fragile even while it holds the weight of the blooms. There’s a frenetic, urgent energy to the brushstrokes, which swirl around the arrangement. This clearly references Hill’s performance practice, with the motions of his body captured on the canvas. But here, movement and expansion are a foil to the ways that Hill’s past works have required endurance and stillness.
Hill’s art has continually asked what it means to live in a Black queer body today. During his 2018 Made in LA performance at the Hammer Museum, Hill stood in front of a neon sign that read: “Where on earth, in which soils, and under what conditions will we bloom brilliantly and violently?” The Oxy Arts exhibition answers: here. It’s a point made in the exhibition text itself. But another answer might be: wherever possible.
“I was sad and tired, so I decided to buy myself flowers,” Hill shares in the press release for the show. The artist is certainly not alone, with many people looking to small joys as a way to get through an otherwise disorienting time. Putting together a flower arrangement turns into an act of control. You choose the colors, the buds, the varying heights. You snip away and shake out petals and remove extra leaves knowing that, in the end, something beautiful will exist that wasn’t in your space before.
What the exhibition balances so well is an acknowledgement of a sort of heaviness in the background, always. A reading corner with titles curated by Hill — some of which he recently taught to students in a class called “Outside the Bounds: Neutral and Authoritative Knowledge” — include a copy of Flower Color Theory by Taylor Putnam and Michael Putnam, alongside texts like We Want to do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love and Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America by Victoria W. Wolcott.
While the paintings do embrace the ideas of “resting, resetting, and finding balance and beauty,” as stated in the exhibition’s wall text, their aesthetics aren’t the whole story. But if a viewer did walk in and just enjoy the gorgeous blooms, what would be so terrible about that — particularly for people in communities that have to fight for their right to exist? Here, there is space to bloom.
Wherever We Will to Root continues at Oxy Arts (4757 York Boulevard, Highland Park, Los Angeles) through April 22. The exhibition was organized by Meldia Yesayan.