Since approximately 300 BC, tapestries have been revered for their places on walls around the world, but their ancient history and ability to last for centuries doesn’t intimidate Erin M. Riley. For the past few years, Riley has investigated internet culture through the historic art of weaving. Using her own nude selfies, fan-submitted images, and internet porn, Riley has created a series of tapestries that redefine the artform completely. In a world where Snapchat nudes disappear in seconds, Riley documents vulnerable modern moments with a medium that lasts.
In depicting her own body and sexuality, Riley has learned a lot about feminism, herself, and the internet. Her work is exceptionally honest in its portrayal of female sexuality and the cultural obsession with images of the self. Riley’s new series, 18/bi/f/ma, opened last week at Brilliant Champions Gallery.
The collection, her largest yet—some tapestries are as large as 8′ x 8’—depicts important and traumatic moments from Riley’s personal life and deals with the artist’s battle with trichotillomania, a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair. The Creators Project talked to Riley about growing up on the internet, weaving fans’ selfies, and how her art helped her learn to embrace her own body.
4am Hookup Prep.
The Creators Project: You basically grew up on the internet, but you work in a millenniums-old medium. Can you tell me about that tension, and how you found your process while growing up?
Erin M. Riley: I spent a lot of time in chat rooms, socializing, but I was pretty solitary and I was also a maker. I was sewing from around age eight and working with beading and collage. I found weaving in college, so, pretty late.
How did you decide to incorporate the internet in your work?
I started using images of my childhood—35 millimeter photographs, basically. But then I was observing how life unfolded online and I came across this video of this person dying in a car accident. I realized that all these onlookers [were] recording the scene and no one was actually engaging and helping. The screen created this barrier that made people forget that they were human. It started to fascinate me how we feel freer to say things or to show things on the internet that we aren’t as comfortable doing in real life.
Why did you choose tapestry and not, for example, photography?
I found myself obsessing over every image I ever sent and received. They were all very precious to me and I always treasured the power or the significance of being sent an image, either a nude or just a passing memory of someone, especially because I didn’t grow up with iPhones. I grew up [when] you couldn’t send pictures easily, so it was always cool to get a photo. Weaving is really slow, and I wanted to commemorate images that I felt connected to.
When fans send you images online, how do their stories inspire you?
They always have this level of like excitement and empowerment. I try to anonymize the image. I change the background, maybe the hair, to make them more universal. But they’re excited, maybe a little bit turned on or titillated by the idea. Sending an image to me turns it into art rather than sexual harassment. It’s awesome to be sent an image that someone wants to share.
How did your relationship to your work or to your body change when you started weaving your own nudes?
It’s definitely made it easier to look at my body because I’ve spent hundreds of hours weaving [it], my tattoos, and everything. It’s made it easier to accept it and to embrace it.
Can you tell me the story behind the piece 4am Hookup Prep?
I have always been, I don’t know if promiscuous is the right word, but constantly texting multiple people at a time, especially at that time. That particular night, I was texting and getting ready to leave, and had to shave my legs and cut myself really bad. I kind of came out of the frenzy of hormones and excitement and realizeed I’m a person and I have to be careful.
If you could have a dream guest on a discussion panel, who would you choose? Which artists have particularly influenced this show?
There was recently an article with Marilyn Minter and Betty Tompkins talking about working with the body and sex and the art world’s response to it. I think those would be dream people to have around. I’d also like the younger generation, people like Petra Collins. This younger generation is using their bodies so freely. [They] grew up really embracing themselves in a different way than I did. I’m curious if that has to do with the fact that they had the internet from the beginning.
What’s next for you?
Right now i’m working on more self-portraits. I’m trying to be more painterly with my work, like more gestural. Sometimes I use flat planes of color and I want to make it more juicy or messier, which is technically hard. And I’m continuing my porn series that I’ve been doing for a while.
By Francesca Caposella