Erin M. Riley, So Over, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W.

Meet the Artist Translating Her Camera Roll into Exquisite Tapestries

Erin M. Riley makes slow weavings of fast images.

by Hettie Judah
Jun 18 2018, 5:26pm

Erin M. Riley, So Over, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W.

If you were the lord of a castle, how would you cover your cold, stone walls? With tapestries of demure maidens, charming unicorns, and cavaliers readying chargers for the field of battle, or weavings of sexts, oversharing, and swiped approval?

Erin M. Riley would opt for the latter. Now on view at P.P.O.W in New York, her woven works echo the picture space of a smartphone screen, mining loaded subject matter both personal and broadly contemporary: car crashes, drug addiction, family dynamics, flirtation, abuse, and masturbation. Many of the pieces are forms of self-portraiture, images that “trigger love and nostalgia, heartbreak, and trauma,” the artist says, speaking on the phone from New York.

I first saw Riley’s work last year in the UK in a pair of ambitious exhibitions of modern tapestry. In Edinburgh at Dovecot Studios, beside other artists’ vegetable-dyed abstracts and faerie folklore, she showed a diptych displaying either end of an intimate video call. At the Holburne Museum in Bath, in a small room that came with a content warning, a tapestry presented her lavishly tattooed body (among the ink, the word “weaver” on her lower belly) as if to a camera lens.

Weaving is time-consuming work—a world apart from the tap of a phone button, yet Riley’s frustration towards digital pictures has less to do with the speed of their making than the carelessness with which they’re received. When she was in long-distance relationships during grad school in Philadelphia, the artist realized, “how little time people I was dating spent on the images I sent them; I was getting frustrated by the absorption. I started to amass images I felt hadn’t been appreciated to their fullest potential.”

Erin M. Riley, Violation, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W.

Biography here appears in a scattering of apparently random objects—a Kate Bush cassette, movie ticket stubs, guitar picks, a parking ticket, and intimate photos appear in Violation, 2017; letters, jewelry, and a pregnancy test can be spotted in So Over, 2016. The precision with which these pictures’ knotted surfaces are rendered is an invitation to look with care in return.

“Weaving was something I always felt slowed me down,” says Riley. “It was something that allowed me to process content I thought was being overlooked or which people jumped to conclusions about. Weaving allowed me to look at these things at a pace they deserved.”

With the slow making comes, too, an interest in uneasy subject matter, from domestic abuse and 911 calls, to puritanical hypocrisy surrounding sex play. “We present ourselves as ‘strong,’ feminist women, who wouldn’t be caught dead with these images on our phones,” says Erin. “But I thought: if these things could exist all at once with me, there was obviously a double standard.”

Erin M. Riley’s exhibition Used Tape is on view at P.P.O.W Gallery in New York through June 30.

Erin M. Riley