Philadelphia-based artist Erin M. Riley originally envisioned herself a painter, but after crafting some tapestries in a freshman year weaving elective at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she realized she “just liked making images with yarn,” she says. “It started out a little abstract, using text, but as my skills progressed, I got more comfortable making images [from photos].”
Over the past decade she’s sublimated those images into woolen icons of louche hipsterdom via news clips of auto accidents, candids of her sisters’ drug exchanges, and sexy snapshots (of lesbian fumblings on beer kegs, iPhone teaser pics, and naked girls wrapped around toilets or smoking bongs in Sublime t-shirts) ripped straight from Facebook, Twitter, and countless fetish-y tumblr blogs.
Through May 5, the 26 year-old weaver currently will have nearly two dozen new tapestries up at San Francisco’s Guerrero Gallery that confront life, death, and our increasingly public courtships in the era of Instagram-lensed exhibitionism that combine the fearlessness of Richard Kern portraits tempered by Philomela’s sense of narrative irony. Fresh from a six-month residency in Nebraska, Riley sounded off on her adventures in the heartland, her favorite blog inspirations, and the would-be suitors who might become the subjects of her next series.
So you just got back from Nebraska, right? How did your work go over there?
Well, it was more of a work thing. I didn’t have any shows, but we did open studios. It was interesting. We didn’t have a lot of interaction with the public, but people were interested. I did a talk in Kansas. There’s not many fiber textile programs anymore, so it’s good to go see what’s available. Some of the students were really excited, the ones who have an idea what’s going on in the world. There was one woman who was really offended by my work. She was a grad student and I ended up having a studio visit with her and it ended up being like a reverse critique and we were just talking about my work. She was very upset about it, then we talked it through and she sort of got it. There are a lot times when people think I’m offending weavers, or weaving itself. Like I shouldn’t be weaving what I’m weaving. They think it’s offensive to the history and it’s a woman’s thing, but there are plenty of men who weave.
It seems like the comparisons of your work to Philomela is pretty apt because you seem to be addressing the same things that were discussed in that myth.
Yeah, because a lot of weavers will weave flowers or landscapes, but I feel like it’s all about this underlying content that no one really wants to talk about. I don’t think women are weaving flowers just to weave flowers, I think it’s all a reference.
Well, you’re obviously pushing a narrative. What would you say you’re trying to communicate in your weaving?
Well, lately I’ve been thinking about the personal, intimate moments. Like sexuality and dating, but the dating nowadays where it’s not in person, it’s this courtship through emailing or text-messaging and the images that come up and the ways you can start to document a relationship. I like a lot of that. And then I do also have a lot of car accidents, so those are sort of the trauma that affects you in different ways.
What is the fascination with the accidents?
I don’t know, I’m just always interested in seeing the moment that might have changed someone’s life (or a family’s life) with death as this turning point. Or like the point where things start to go bad.
When did you start doing those?
I’ve been doing the car accidents since undergrad, so almost 10 years. When I was younger we had a family close to ours die in a drunk driving accident that killed four people, so that was one of the first instances where death was an event and you could see it and there were documents in the newspaper. Then you could see the skid marks on the highway of the evidence.
So it’s almost like the opposite trajectory of Warhol. He went from doing bombshells and flowers to death and destruction paintings and you went from death and destruction to the bombshells.
What made you get into the women and the sex and the vibrators and tweezers and stuff?
I think I was just really blown away by what was on the internet. This was like 2009 and I think I was just out of grad school and had a lot of time on my hands and I was just sort of trying to figure out new work. So I started thinking about all these girls drinking and both my sisters — I have a younger sister (23) and an older sister (29) and I always think in timelines in terms of what my sisters are getting into — so sometimes when I deal with the drug stuff it’s like what they’re doing. So when I started doing the girls they might have been sober at the time so I could think about other stuff and wasn’t so obsessed with their lives.
What about the personal objects?
Those are sort of on the newer side. I’ve been trying to bring myself more into things, so those are my vibrators and my tweezers, so rather than represent drugs, which I don’t use, and trying to see what it looks like from a drug user’s point of view, I’ve been trying to represent the tools that are in my life, the personal things.
What got you into textiles and weaving?
Originally I went to art school wanting to be a painting major and then I just discovered weaving and I don’t know. I just liked the challenge of it.
Is it harder than painting?
I don’t know, I think there’s easy painting and easy weaving. I don’t want to say that it’s harder than painting because I’m sure there are paintings that are way harder to do than my weavings, but it’s hard. It’s really time-consuming. It’s also something where if you make a mistake or error you can’t really change it later. You have to work from the bottom to the top and finish one before you start another so there’s a lot of restrictions to work around and work with.
How long does it take to weave one?
Normally it takes about seven or eight days, but long days, like 12 or 13 hours. I can usually make one a week, but that’s cramming really hard. It really just depends on how much time I can work in a day.
And where are you getting the images you use?
Mostly the internet and blogs. Usually it’s people I don’t know. There’s a lot of blogs where it’s very specific, like girls smoking bongs or girl tumblrs with tons and tons of girls. Sometimes I just search stuff randomly. I have a folder on my computer that’s full of images I’ve collected.
I’m sure a lot of these images look fairly similar to one another. What makes one work for enough to weave it?
I just think it’s the details. The details that make me know the girl is not a professional or that these are personal, so there will be hairbrushes or clothes on the floor. There’s different ways they can pose images, so sometimes it’s just the way a girl is standing or how sucked in she is, or how she’s thinking (or not thought at all) about composing the image.
Do the images surprise you?
It’s really strange. I was just thinking about Facebook safety and how teenagers are so oblivious to posting hundreds and hundreds of photos of themselves and they don’t know to keep it private, and you see all these photos of couples, which shouldn’t be public, but it is. I don’t know.
And there was Friendster, then Myspace, and now it’s just Facebook, so they’ve progressed with the amount someone is willing to put on them. The more young people are growing up with these things they just have no thought that the internet is so big. It’s strange.
Do you ever worry about any of these girls being underage?
It’s a hard thing because I have them on my computer and that may be illegal, and there was a time I was searching for little girls because I was weaving little girls, so I do think I might be on some weird list for internet searching. But I think most of them are probably of age now if they weren’t and the images I use are pretty anonymous by the time I weave them.
It’s not like your work is disdainful of these people, but you are editorializing on the source images, so do you ever wonder about the motives of the people collecting the work?
Yeah, I think a lot of the sexy young girl ones are popular, but I’m never sure what they’re being used for. I had a guy who bought a couple car crashes and then he thought he was going to buy three, but then he said, “I can’t have all of these. It’s just too much to have in my house.” I think some people can live with them and some people can’t. Also, I think about the fact that women are beautiful and sexy and despite it being someone’s personal moment it can be beautiful. I have an ex-boyfriend who I sent pictures to when I was younger and I’m always wishing I could find those images but they’re gone on an old phone that died somewhere. The computers died and the phones are lost.
Or they may still be out there.
I know. That’s true. I just want to see what I looked like when I was 20.
Has anyone ever tried to get in touch with saying that was them in the tapestry?
What would you do if that happened?
I don’t know. It might be an interesting conversation. I did weave a girl I knew, but it wasn’t a sex picture, it was just a picture of her when she was younger. But these images are already on the internet, so I’d like to get the backstory: Where did it come from? What was it for?
What sites are you sourcing?
It’s Google, and different keywords, and then I have a bunch of blogs I follow. One of them is Synthetic Pubes. They’ve posted my work and they also have a lot of girls. A lot I would never use, but it’s good to see. There’s just millions of tumblrs. One of them is called Titty Citay and then one’s called Beaver Fever that’s just crotch shots. There’s a few of them that are pretty amateur and I like those a lot. It’s like I shouldn’t be on these websites, so it’s my own dark secrets, so it’s this strange underworld you go on if you don’t have time for anybody but I use it to make my art. It’s not even really pornographic. If you’re on those things for so long it’s not even sexual anymore, it’s just parts.
It’s pretty weird if you think about it.
Everyone’s just gotten into this habit of “nothing happens until you tell people about it” and nothing is for yourself anymore and you have to get comments and you have to Twitter about it. It’s just this constant sharing of information that’s private.
As the work progresses you’ll probably get to the point where people just send you photos if they aren’t already.
That hasn’t happened yet, but I do have a few male suitors who tend to text message me things when I travel and I might start using the images they send me. I think there’s risk there, but that’s what they get for sending me images — I might use them to weave.
Michael Slenske is writer splitting his time between Arizona and NYC.