Erin M. Riley on Transforming Challenging Moments into Epic Tapestries

By Jelena Martinovic on April 1, 2018

The work of the Brooklyn-based artist Erin M. Riley navigates the experiences we all share. Using wool yarn that she hand-dyes, manipulates and deconstructs, Riley preserves intimate yet transient moments through intricate, hand-woven tapestries that explore theconsequences of living in our contemporary society. From explicit found imagery, naked selfies and personal sexts to a neatly organized row of used tampons, her work confronts viewers with subjects that are often considered societal taboos.

Drawn to themes of self-discovery, experimentation, excitement, boredom, regression and destruction, Riley examines the honesty of womanhood and sexuality as well as how courtships, pornography and sex is changing as a result of the mass depiction of these private moments online. These relatable, intimate portraits into past experiences are both personal and part of the communal memory, allowing for self-contemplation and opening up a greater discourse surrounding current social issues.

PRØHBTD spoke with Riley about her fascinating and thought-provoking work. She discussed her chosen medium and subject matter, online sexual gratification, the issues of body, sexuality and female identity, and confronting her own personal struggles.  

Your practice combines the ancient art form of weaving with contemporary and provocative subjects. What drew you to this medium, and how do the themes you deal with relate to it?

I found textiles in middle school during home economics, and the sewing machine was my first real friend. But in college, I discovered a loom, my second real friend. The medium does not necessarily relate to the themes. I use yarn, weaving and textiles as a gesture in place of traditional art mark-making that one typically related to painting. My yarn and my weaving are juxtaposing the content in a way that relates to time and technology, but it is, in the end, the most natural choice for me to use as a technique. 

You immortalize fleeting moments through large and intricate tapestries that are the result of a very time-consuming process. How do you think this alters the way viewers interact with and relate to the subject matter?

I hope that by seeing the work in a new context—a softer medium, a medium they might not be familiar with—will allow them to both ponder the content as well as the process. By allowing them the confusion, I hope this puts them in my shoes, unweaving the reasons behind why I feel so strongly connected to the images I chose.

Your tapestries were often drawn from imagery sourced online through a variety of media. How does your work address the issues of ownership, exploitation and the role of the internet in our personal lives?

When I first started out, I was using images from all over and across the internet. I got online in the late '90s, and during that time everything was essentially avatars. Nowadays it would be referred to as catfishing, but when people started chatting, they would trade images. Rarely would they be of them, mostly because digital cameras were basically non-existent. Eventually we got webcams and some super crappy pixelated cameras, but the images weren't ever really thought of having ownership. They were fodder for fantasy-land cybering and chatting. As access to cameras developed, [so did] the idea that images were of actual people, [as did] the ideas of ownership, violation through sharing, and unpacking our objectification of the nude. I try to always alter, remove and anonymize the humans in my work as well as put them in a context that is respectful and non-judgmental.

You also use images of yourself, giving an honest presentation of the parts of being a woman that many are afraid to show. Why do you think is important to acknowledge and share these moments?

I wanted to use my own images because they are the visual remnants of romance, of trysts, of 3 a.m booty calls—I love this content. It's so revealing, so salacious but also so intimate and loving. I love my body, and I respect it, so I present it to my partners in a way that is visually appealing and thus compositionally compelling, and they inspire me to weave them. I wanted to put myself, as a feminist, as a person who lives a life with a certain illicit private life, does not change my status as serious, respected, etc. By putting a new narrative as someone who works with serious content, who has experienced negative things sexually but who also indulges in the fun, might allow others to understand that so many things can be true at a time within someone’s identity. We have to allow for multiple things to be true within others, that way less is assumed, and we all take more time to get to know individuals rather than pigeonholing versions of humans.

Among images you work with are nude selfies and sexts that you have sent to your lovers. Has this practice changed your relationship with your body and sexuality in any way?

I chose to use my own images as a way of standing into the content. I have had partners mention their timidity with engaging with me because of my work, but ultimately that is their choice. I work with personal content, and it's wildly known, and I will not change my work no matter my relationship status. So that is something that comes with me. My work and research have allowed me to rethink and examine gender identity, presentation, sexuality and all of the ways we define and present ourselves. I am still exploring my body and understanding all of the things I feel about it.

Your female subjects are often depicted as vulnerable, in both emotional and physical ways. How does this relate to the aggression and violence women face in the contemporary society?

Honestly, it's scary out there. I am often inspired by people who can be loving, vulnerable and open with their bodies and in seeing that I am encouraged to do so with my own. Often challenged to do so. I took almost a year off of sex after my last relationship because of how horrible intimacy had become, but I needed visual encouragement to allow myself to open up and become sexually open to other humans again. I hope that by presenting bodies it allows people who are scared or just plain over it to tap back into their touch, their skin and allow themselves to be physically vulnerable again.

Depictions of drug paraphernalia and cannabis are also frequent in your work. What do these drug-related motifs represent for you?

When I am putting drugs in my work, I am either coming from an erotic memory or from a voyeur kind of anthropologist perspective. I have never been against drugs, but I just never used them. I grew up in a town that had a lot of drunk driving deaths, and early on I decided not to drink or do anything because of designated driver stuff. Also, my mom was scary AF, and I was saving for college and to move as quickly after high school as possible. I have had many beautiful lovers who used drugs around me, and it was always something that excited, fascinated and intrigued me, but my family has had their fair share of tumultuous situations with addiction so I always just observed. I had a sexy metal dude ex who would blow weed smoke in my ears and once made me help him search his entire house, including the trash, for a bottle of Adderall, but the sex was obviously good so it was all tied up in eroticism.

Your work also taps into the contemporary cultural phenomena of the selfie and the instant gratification of the digital age. How do you think social media affects and influences our sexual selves?

I think social media's positive responses to our engagement is super fascinating. Honestly, I have a hypothesis that sexual gratification online and through texting can satiate some of our IRL physical desires. Often you’ll follow a person who presents themselves as open, fun, sexually free, but then finally they will open up and explain that their online presentation is not what they are like IRL. I think that our sexual expression, our interactions and desires online are pure, uninhibited and, in some ways, the way most of us feel our most comfortable. This often doesn’t translate into the physical sphere, and that’s ok. For me, sex is theoretical, nostalgic, [and] rarely do I talk or make work about current partners. I am typically reflecting on the past ones or musing and manifesting about future ones. (Note: IRL = in real life.)

How do you think your work contributes to normalizing the conversations about sex and sexuality, but also to reevaluating and reconsidering the values of contemporary women?

I want everyone to be talking about sex, masturbation, pleasure and joy. There is so much about being a woman that is tied with struggle, and I get that. I have experienced struggle, trauma, violation, but living in the shadow of that prevents me from being my best self, and I want to be my best self despite any limitations this world has put on me. So I try my best to be strong, and secure, and stable so that I might put forward a person who can support others the way I want to be supported. My work helps me in that way.

Who were your influences, and who are the artists whose work you admire today?

I loved Kara Walker, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Nan Goldin when I was in school. I always admired artists who work with pure visceral expressions of being. Nowadays I love what Doreen Gardner is doing, Betty Tompkins, Cristina Tufiño, Cassils... there are so many.

Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

I am kind of unsure of my future plans. I am working on a series that reflects on past relationships, gender identity, sexuality and body fluids. I am working on trying to unpack the visual representations of white supremacy in movies and TV and pop culture and how to logically present the concept of white men as aggressors and white women as complicit. I am working on collecting and compiling the images of romantic suffering, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and violations. I am still unsure of how all of this will integrate into my work. But while I am thinking about all of that, I am enjoying taking some nudie pix and exploring my own body in my work as I explore new relationship energies after a month in the woods in New Hampshire. 

Leah Emery Cross-Stitches Confrontation Over Sexual Expression

Jessica Yatrofsky on Creativity, Poetry, Sexuality and Feminism

Enter the Surreal World of Travis Lampe

Bob Dylan's Grandson Pablo Is Knocking on Shakespeare's Door

The Comet Is Coming on Trippy Technological Transcendence

Quim Rock's Cyo Nystrom on Elevated Vaginal Health

Zoé Byland Fuses the Past and Present into Rich Visual Narratives

Ben Frost Paints Truth to Power

Nick Georgiou Channels Colors and Codices in New Exhibit

Glass Artist Sibelle Yuksek Celebrates the Female Form

Junko Mizuno Reflects Herself and her World Through Art

Dan Lam on Her Drippy, Otherworldly Sculptures

Ron English Shares His Delusions

Artist-Driven Ads Celebrating Female Sexuality Banned from NYC Transit

All Women Are Stars in the Art of Natalia Fabia