Erin M. Riley isn’t your traditional weaver: Instead of patterns or pastoral landscapes, her tapestries feature naked selfies, bongs and used condoms. “I am very much obsessed with the little things—the awkward conversations, the condoms on a guy’s floor, bringing it to the bathroom, wrapping it up in a tissue, having to pee, walking in the dark in an unfamiliar apartment,” Erin explains. “I find it interesting that we all do things that we don’t talk about, and I am interested in talking about them.” Through her hand-dyed and woven work, Erin explores issues such as the exploitation of women on the internet and her own sexuality. Similar to fiber artist Sheila Hicks, whom she is inspired by, Erin presents her textiles as an experience. Her exhibition, In & Out, is on view at Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia through October 12, and she has upcoming shows at The Bishop in Brooklyn and Space 1026 in Philadelphia, among others.
You said that you went to art school to become a painter but ended up weaving. What drew you to weaving? What did you think you could communicate better with yarn than paint?
I enjoyed the work aspect of weaving, learning something from the ground up, and the time it took to create the pieces. I don’t think that weaving expresses anything more or less than paint—it’s just a different way of image making. In the beginning of learning weaving it is logical, mathematical, highly planned and drafted. That was comforting in a sense. Pieces were completed linearly and if they were visually a failure, you were always learning something and improving your skill from the process. I essentially just felt more at home blending yarn than paint.
You started out making abstract tapestries with text. When, and why, did you decide to start creating more explicit tapestries?
I started making more explicit tapestries as soon as I was out of grad school. I had a show on the horizon that I was planning to call Daddy Issues, and so I was researching the ways these psychological issues manifest in daily behavior—drinking, partying, etc. I was also trying to understand my own sexuality in an environment that was shaming women whose behavior mirrored mine, and so I decided to present that with my artwork.
You find a lot of your images online. How do you select the images you weave? It seems like you’re not just looking for a certain girl but certain details—a toothbrush on the sink, clothes on the floor, and so on.
I find the images all over the internet, and generally I am interested in the clothes, or the way she is posed. Objects in the back are interesting to me as well. Growing up communicating on the internet you find yourself connecting to strangers via photos and that is something I do with the girls I weave. I spend time observing them, tracing them and then weaving them. The details are what makes them unique, but it is a personal connection that draws me to them.
Were you ever disapproving of the girls in these photos?
When I was first making the work of young women, I was judging them. I was under the impression that many people are: that girls are responsible for their actions and the world is an ugly place so they should be more careful. And, while women are very much responsible for their actions, just being drunk, or scantily clad does not mean they should find themselves victims of any judgments, assaults or invasions. I finally realized that victim blaming is where so many problems arise, and fostering safe expressions of sexuality is important. As such, taking nude photos of yourself is not inherently wrong, what is wrong is the misuse of these images, and while it may seem that I am continuing the misuse, I am mostly interested in presenting the facts of modern sexuality. The beauty and the intimate moments that nowadays are documented obsessively and openly.
When you started weaving images of yourself, did that experience make you more empathetic to the girls in your work?
Weaving my own body allowed me to totally open myself up to how it must feel to be completely on view. It was truly cathartic and I am definitely more empathetic.
Since your work often makes private parts of your life public, is there anything that is off limits?
I have always been the kind of person to be fine with the uncomfortable, so after I wove the pictures of myself I pretty much felt like everything to do with me was fair game. But, I have a whole folder of pictures guys have sent me, it’s something that I think about but don’t have the heart to put out there. It wouldn’t exactly be on point to publish private images when they have had the restraint with mine.