E.J. Hill, Complicit and Tacit, Honor Fraser Gallery, April 10, 3014, a response by Claire Anna Baker

All photos courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery

Photos of E.J. Hill courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery

The wall of stillness in the room struck me as I entered E.J. Hill’s performance, Complicit and Tacit, 30 minutes into the approximately 120 which would pass. The collective gaze of the audience shot a hundred arrows toward the target of his isolated body. I moved through the silent room toward the front row. Audience heads fallen away, his full stance came into view. A dry circle stained his groin; a faded puddle ran down his right leg. Had he peed himself? Had he lost control, that is? He stood in a face off—his body versus the social expectations of the audience, the structure of the white box stage and his own middle-class khaki and loafer uniform. He fought all resistance in order to remain stuck to his box.

The emotional body of both audience and actor claimed full display. Despair, shame, fear, guilt, sadness and loneliness filled the constrained room. E.J.’s muscles were tense, his weight shifted foot to foot. His eyes roamed high, settling for only a breath before remembering they were not safe, still on the run. Then he looked down, a scarce hiding place. His shoulders subtly sinking, he bent down and rested his arms on his knees, the strain of his static calves apparent. Then he rose again, a defensive confidence. Tears swept over his face. The contortion of sadness compressed the space until blank numbness washed over him and all went slack.

The audience members stuck to their own boxes. Eyes of empathy mirrored his strain. Some eyes hung back, blank and numb. Some eyes reached forward, toward him, yearning to connect in comfort. Some eyes evaded, fidgeted, tickled a lover to ameliorate the discomfort. Yet all bodies remained mostly still. We were not supposed to move. Watching was our perceived social mandate. I thought, is this a test? Are we in our humanness meant to break the wall of the stage and help him? Yet the boundaries prevailed. There was no helping him. Indeed the empathy in the room was so strong I became as alone and paralyzed by emotion as he was.

EJ Hill 2a

While I stared at E.J. Hill, he became a full-fleshed American portrait. Manet’s Ragpicker, which hangs at the Norton Simon Museum, flashed in my mind. Manet suspends his representative of this beggar social type in a void. He stands tall despite his cane, larger than life, a sage-like portrait of a man in a social box. This ragpicker confronts the viewer with his humanness, teaching the viewer how much more he is than his social status. He teaches the viewer what it is to survive and to stand tall even with a limp.

Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, c. 1865-1870, oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Foundation

Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, c. 1865-1870, oil on canvas,
The Norton Simon Foundation

Here, E.J. Hill sets forth his own J. Crew-molded, middle-class American social type. The fact that he is also dark skinned and tattooed is a testament to the changing image of America. And yet this is a face that many do not want to confront. The audience was thrust into performing this task of confrontation—with E.J., with ourselves—pushed to make up for every averted gaze that ever was. Meanwhile he withstood it at all cost, even while defiled by tears and a stained groin.

Why did he hold on so tight to his position despite his suffering? Were we as audience members both aggressors and healers at once? Was it because he needed to feel witnessed in such a magnified form? Or was it a tug of war with us, a painful struggle to reclaim authority or perhaps just equality?

And how would this testimony end? The intimate aloneness would just end, as all things do. The shame to be buried once again.

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