Brooklyn based artist Erin M. Riley creates awe inspiring, one of a kind tapestries, spending an insane amount of time and energy at her loom, dyeing and weaving, the process itself very physically demanding, from foot pedals and constant movement back and forth across the loom. As one reviewer wrote "guns, syringes, bongs, vomit, sex, cars crashing, no topic is too much to be recreated on Erin’s loom." One of her installations, of which the pieces are some of the biggest she has made, come from a series entitled Year of Porn, in which Erin painstakingly weaved into tapestries screen shots of the porn she was watching, these pieces she cites as being among the more difficult and technically problematic to make, as well as being thematically risky, as she put it " it serves as a dairy of things that most people don't publicly discuss. It outed me as a porn watcher, non hetero etc." Some of the tapestries also involve selfies, including a series of weaving's around young women's often nude selfies sent to boyfriends or girlfriends. When decoupled from their attendant conversations, Erin notes they often become mundane and lack the original intimacy that existed at the time the captured image was taken. Her work focuses on technology, women's bodies/issues and most importantly the sex positive, unapologetic affirmation of the feminine self, as Erin puts it "admitting a desire or a sexual proclivity towards males feels like betrayal. It's a hard concept to wrestle with that a smart independent strong woman can also want to be sexy and pretty and have all of those things be defined by them while also sometimes being for and with men." In addition there are critiques of technology, where, as Erin writes, " the down sides are the fact that cause and effect is basically hidden from view. Saying something, doing something, sending, clicking, etc etc, its all "action" but zero consumption of the recipient or other side." Spending sometimes 12 hours a day buried under mountains of wool and cotton, the energy expended is admirable and the effort translates into woven pieces that are more than just labors of love; they are labors of every human emotion, experience and topic possible.
AHC: Can you talk a bit about your process, themes & inspirations?
Erin: I am inspired by everything. I try to observe and consume experiences from people of all walks of life and see things from all different perspectives so that I might reach deeper into their psyche. I am trying to reflect my reality clearer so that people can understand one perspective of a human. I work with weaving, so I collect, take, and prepare to scale drawings for the loom. I dye the yarn, mixing it up and organize it for the piece and get to weaving. Each piece takes about 80-100+ hours to complete.
AHC: What first drew you to art/weaving? Was there a specific moment in your life or turning point where it became clear to you that you were being called to create in the ways that you have?
Erin: I kept diaries obsessively in my childhood, it was the only friend I could rely on when I was stressed or worried. I could be *me*. My mother read those diaries and yelled at me because I knew the word "boner" and as an act of defiance I ripped up all of my diaries and started basically sketchbooks, collaging, drawing, and writing in code so that no one could ever understand what I was talking about. I have been a loner since I was a little kid, I would make stuff for hours on my own and that has continued into my adulthood, its my safety net.
AHC: Who are some of your artistic influences? Is there anyone outside of the art world who has had a significant impact on your work or who just generally inspire you, writers, filmmakers, musicians etc?
Erin: Art is Louise Bourgeois, Francis Bacon, Kara Walker, Ray Johnson, Betty Tompkins. I love Raymond Carver, and Anne Frank. I spent a lot of time listening to folk music, politically minded, emotional and soothing. It was inspiring.
AHC: In your series of tapestries around sexting and even in Year of Porn, the inspiration and its executions is very sex-positive, has there been a larger amount of people who really get that aspect of it or are there more people who are often offended without realizing the positive aspect behind the themes you're dealing with? How do you handle or navigate this with people who can't allow themselves to just take the work in with an open mind?
Erin: ahhhh. the dilemma of porn! many repressed people take their fears and discomfort out on those who are trying to push themselves and those around them further. Porn is held responsible for the decline of civilization just like rock music was in the 80s. So much of sex is related to fear for women, and they are scared for my safety, for their own safety, and I worry that this fear is probably hindering their sex life or their connection to their own body. I have empathy, my own mother is worried that this work will "attract the weirdos" but she doesn't want to accept that I am a weirdo. My work doesn't shock me, does that make me depraved or just well adjusted?
AHC: It seems there has always been a tension, historically, between sex positive feminists, such as Kathy Acker, Lydia Lunch, and the rest of feminism which can sometimes take a very moralizing stance toward feminists who are sex positive and who explore that through the work that they do. How do you navigate this double standard and what are your thoughts on its existence, why is there such resistance from within?
Erin: I think while many intellectual feminists can speak and write about being strong and independent of men, admitting a desire or a sexual proclivity towards males feels like betrayal. It's a hard concept to wrestle with that a smart independent strong woman can also want to be sexy and pretty and have all of those things be defined by them while also sometimes being for and with men. I had a huge struggle with it in my younger years, it's complicated. But the more we talk about sex and the more we understand that our sexual life does not define or take away from our intellectual life or independence the better all genders will be.
AHC: What do you see as the pros and cons of modern technology? We often hear of its many up sides, what do you think the down sides are?
Erin: the down sides are the fact that cause and effect is basically hidden from view. saying something, doing something, sending, clicking, etc etc, its all "action" but zero consumption of the recipient or other side. we are too comfortable on this interweb.
AHC: What is the most challenging, difficult piece you've created, both in terms of execution and of fleshing out the idea for it?
Erin: I had been hiding away these porn screenshots for a piece that was a record of the date and time I was watching, over years. It was challenging technically, I had to weave many separate images and many numbers and letters, but it was also challenging conceptually. It serves as a dairy of things that most people don't publicly discuss. It outed me as a porn watcher, non hetero, etc.
AHC: Is the creative process at all cathartic and healing for you personally? Does it give you a place to store and transform difficult or numb moments in life?
Erin: Yes for sure. I use making as a way to have consistency in my life which is mostly mundane save for some random times of chaos. It helps me through anxiety and stress, it challenges me and encourages me. I often end my day thinking I wasn't sure I could get through some parts, and yet here I am, a few more inches closer to finishing.
AHC: What is the first work of art you encountered that took your breath away?
Erin: During a video exhibition at the Philadelphia ICA many years ago I sat in a small booth watching a Kara Walker video piece. This was the first time I had seen her work in motion, her work is constantly riveting but there was something about this video piece that gutted me.
AHC: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for other artists & creators who are struggling, in whatever stage of the process they find themselves in, experiencing doubt or frustration with where they are in their art form? What are the kinds of things you remind yourself of when you are struggling creatively?
Erin: Trust yourself. You're the boss. I always felt like I had to know what I was making next or have a clear explanation of the body of work that I was currently producing, but the more I make pieces the more I know that they tell you what they mean when they're ready. Seeing pieces together in a group explains so much more than any statement or blurb. So I embrace the making. I know they will make sense at some point, to me at least. Do the work.
AHC: Do you have any upcoming exhibits/performances or new projects you'd like to tell people about?
Erin: I have an upcoming solo exhibition that will open March 4 in San Francisco California at Hashimoto contemporary. The show is titled 'Simple' and it's about the layers of visual experiences.
All images © Erin M. Riley
Photo of the artist via Erin's Instagram:
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