Artist Erin M. Riley Interweaves Issues of Sex and Feminism in Tapestry
In large-scale tapestries, the Brooklyn-based artist amplifies routines and objects of womanhood
Images: Erin M. Riley
In equal measure, Erin M. Riley is an anachronism and a don’t-give-a-fuck torch bearer. The Brooklyn-based artist transforms images—from her own sexually-explicit selfies to iPhone screenshots—into insanely-detailed, hand-woven tapestries.The result is a collision of a bygone, time-gulping art form with the now, now, now of contemporary living and instantaneous (over)sharing. Riley dedicates more than ten hours each day to her practice, meticulously threading, prepping, dying yarn and weaving. By her own admission, she has spent more time with her looms than with any one human.
For her latest exhibition 18/bi/f/ma, on view now at Brilliant Champions Gallery in Brooklyn, Riley sets her gaze on the amplification of those off-limits moments and routines for women that go, for the most part, unseen and unspoken. The behind-the-scenes of femininity—shaving for a 4am hookup, dildos, tweezing and sexting—all become real-life fodder for empowerment rather than shame. And capturing these moments, woven in grand scale (some tapestries are as large as 8 x 8), only furthers the point: Take it or leave it.
Mass Appeal: What brought you to weaving? At one point did you know that it would be your creative arena?
Erin M. Riley: I came to weaving through college. I connected instantly to it and I am still not sure why it was so immediate. Tapestry is my way of combining process oriented studio practice with a visual expression.
Is the act of weaving itself a contemplation? A meditation? On the physically-exhaustive zen tip?
Yes. Often times when I am working on a piece I spend ten plus hours weaving, sometimes without speaking. If I go to the bodega or laugh out loud to a podcast I am reawoken out of a daze. It’s awesome.
The work in 18/bi/f/ma feels enjoyably subversive – within an art historical context and a social context. Are you ever shocked that a used tampon or a dildo or tweezers – anything explicitly “for women” – is still seen as taboo – like really? Even in our culture of oversharing?
Yes! It’s so bizarre when my work is labeled taboo. I find that most people who are shocked by my work are of an older generation when sexuality was not talked about so openly and people who don’t share their personal life with the internet or are slightly repressed or self-loathing. I came up in the punk scene and didn’t really care what people thought of how I dressed or behaved, but always felt these twinges of regret when it came to dating. That was because female sexuality and biology is constantly held over us. Basically, I learned that the shame other people wanted to induce in me was not my problem. Anything shocking or gross to them was a take-it-or-leave-it.
This is the first time you are working with images of yourself and not solely from those found online. Your work has always been about an examination of self, but what prompted the shift to literally place yourself within the tapestries?
I wanted to work with myself because it allowed the images to be literally super personal. I had used a few images of myself in the past but never at this scale. The internet has also shifted. Images online used to be raw, unedited, no filters and without the cognition that people would see it, comment on it or share it. That was the most interesting time online as a voyeur and as someone who was simply fascinated by human sexuality and behavior. It has gotten really hard to find intimate, special photographs simply because it is so normalized nowadays, so I am using images taken from my day-to-day life and ones I send to my partner via sext.
Is there a sense of reclamation involved for you – on embracing your body, your own darkness and light? Is your use of scale dictated in direct relation to that?
For sure. So much about proclivities that are kept hidden is that they often fester. We grow guilt and shame. We begin to compartmentalize our realities. Being someone who sent nude photos a lot, who was sexting and watching porn on my phone constantly, it was ridiculous to engage with people who disrespected sexually adventurous or active women. People who thought it was ok for certain sexual behavior to happen depending on the context or random outdated rules. Working large allows these moments and behaviors to be put in the limelight. They are shared explicitly.
So often, there’s this bullshit notion that feminism and sexuality don’t or can’t intersect, that they are mutually exclusive. Did it take a while before you were comfortable for them to coexist, without the dread that one compromises the other?
Yes. I hated the notion that indulging in pleasure made me weak, dirty or less than, and yet, I engaged in a society that supported only that. The vagina had to be kept sacred unless the person attached to it was deemed meaningless, and respect and love were different than lust.I am still retraining myself to stand up for sexual double standards and support women however they live their lives. I’m still often worried I am not being a good feminist but I try my hardest everyday, working to reflect my true experience.
18/bi/f/ma is on view at Brilliant Champions Gallery (5 Central Ave, Brooklyn) through July 26, 2016.