University of the Creative Arts-OCA American Tapestry Artist-Erin M. Riley

Zoom Presentation Wednesday 24th March 4-5pm

Erin M. Riley (2011) Pure Hell. Wool, Nylon. 41″ x 26″

Erin M. Riley showcased her contemporary hand-woven tapestry and broke the preconceived notion of what you think of as loom work and altogether shifted my relationship with this medium and its many possibilities. Her raw, edgy portraits of sexuality, addictions and excess create an updated version of traditional loom storytelling as well as acting as a warning to others. The artist’s raw and visceral retelling of her influences…other women’s reality coupled with her striving to comprehend her own personal reality of hurt, rejection, abuse, addictions, and abandonment the imagery is deliberately communicated with such photo-realism.

Erin M. Riley (2012) Loot 5. Wool, Nylon. Loot 5 42″ x 26″
Erin M. Riley (2012) Fun. Wool, Cotton. 42″ x 30″
Erin M. Riley (2013) Swirls. Wool, Cotton. 42″ x 26″
Erin M. Riley (2014) Bruises 3. Wool, Cotton, Bleach. 44″ x 40″
Erin M. Riley (2016) Head On. Wool, Cotton. 100″ x 50″

From the OCA presentation Erin M. Riley explained her use of metaphor and symbolism along with the literal retelling and interpretation of photographic imagery from the internet to fuel awareness and understanding. She discussed her stepfather’s love of cars which exceeded his love of her and her sisters, that he fathered the cars and not them. So, the many tapestries with smashed up cars as their core theme appeared to explore major destructive narratives within society alongside her “daddy issues” as the textile artist put it. Many other tapestries explored her biological fathers’ absence, of his denial, of his attempted return and his rejection through his loss of power.

Erin M. Riley (2016) They. Wool, Cotton. 36″ x 36″

Erin Riley can be described as a visual reporter for her generation. She observes her world and contemporary culture through social media, gathers images from the internet and translates them into tapestries that are often tragic, provocative, and certainly disturbing. Much of her subject matter has to do with young women involved with drugs, drunkenness, and sexual encounters. She is interested in the reasons behind the behavior as much as in the actions themselves. The ideas of need, love, longing and despair are all visible in this work.

Erin M. Riley (2017) Evidence. Wool, Cotton. 134″ x 48″
Erin M. Riley (2017) Crimson Landslide 5. Wool, Cotton. 48″ x 36″

The gathering of Erin’s source material relies on the careless sharing of images on the internet. She can sit in the comfort of her own home or studio and gather highly personal images from people she may or may not know. The information sharing that happens on-line has replaced private phone calls or the face-to-face, whispered conversations between friends. The documentation of one’s life on-line to validate a life is pervasive among people of all ages but potentially toxic to this age group who are going through a time of intense social investigation within the direct glare of social media with its related comment, judgement, and scrutiny.

Through her reflections Erin M. Riley noted “My interests in this [sexuality and sharing] stem from trying to understand the differences between myself and my two sisters who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction” and the realisation “that we all ended up with addictive traits.” She discussed openly her own emotional relating and responding to her sisters’ addictions including the routes to trauma, of her own guilt and shame and how this has played out in her own life, of the need to keep her hands busy with tapestry weaving, of the cathartic nature of textiles to keep busy and to process.

Erin M. Riley (2018) Four dead. Wool, Cotton. 100″ x 62″
Erin M. Riley (2018) Impressions. Wool, Cotton.48″ x 58″/
Erin M. Riley (2018) Beginning Small. Wool, Cotton. 24″ x 21″
Erin M. Riley (2018) The Darkness. Wool, Cotton. 48″ x 50″

Susan Iverson (2019) reported Tapestry has a long rich history of storytelling.  These stories are often about religious or political people and events.  Within these stories there may be images of socially unacceptable or morally inappropriate behaviour (according to prevailing norms), but they are often in the background and were included to act as a lesson or warning to the viewer.  The face of gluttony or greed is not pretty – and that was the point.  Historically tapestries functioned, in part, to educate the people about major social, political, or religious events.  What we generally do not see in historical tapestries is the image of a person engaged in a private, as well as dangerous or illegal moment, as the primary subject of the tapestry.  Like all the art of the times, twentieth and twenty-first century tapestries have allowed for a hugely different type of storytelling and visual documentation of events.  Erin’s tapestries have the potential to be classified as simple portraits, cultural documentation, sexually provocative images, or even cautionary tales.  We, as the viewers add social commentary and perhaps a personal reaction that may lend itself to a larger story.  When we look at several of these works together, we can push past the sense of the singular observation, put the images together, and sketch out a story.

As Erin M. Riley emphasised throughout the presentation, she covets the reactions of the audience, of the need to share experiencing to validate others experiencing and her own experiencing so for her “putting it out there to share” has the potential to “address things” through these snapshots of peoples’ lives which “a lot of others can relate to”. For Erin M. Riley “it’s important to talk about things” to let peoples’ experiencing be seen and to be heard. For Erin M. Riley her tapestry weavings are “there to expose things” the work enables her to go into stuff to go darker.

Erin M. Riley (2019) Seizure. Wool, Cotton. 48″ x 28″
Erin M. Riley (2019) Scared. Wool, Cotton. 100″ x 60″

Erin M. Riley discussed how the news portray information, of the inaccuracies broadcast and printed with no retractions, of misaligned realities reported and persons discredited. How domestic violence can be distilled down and the use of simple assault to normalise violence and stigmatise women which is illustrated throughout the tapestry weaving with loaded sexual imagery.

Erin M. Riley (2020) Emergency. Wool, Cotton. 100″ x 55″
Erin M. Riley (2020) Jesus Calling. Wool, Cotton. 100″ x 67″
Erin M. Riley (2021) Dream Machine. Wool, Cotton. 48″ x 31″

What is wonderful about this textile artists work is that it is not perfect as often tapestries are expected to be perfect. In considering this… perfection is not the point with its portrayal of flawed humanity. It is flawed which is in keeping with the context of her work. From locating the fibres department and the loom room at Massachusetts College of Art and Design the artist has never stopped perusing craft and fabric stories. It was the perfect fit as she was interested in learning a tangible skill, which allowed for the work to have conceptual weight, the tapestry seemed to be the best way to use imagery and content while using textile techniques. She has been so prolific in her short career – with the completion of over 50 tapestries in six years using her table loom.  This speed of creation has given the tapestries a real authentic quality with the illustration of the underbelly of society to show hard to understand experiencing, to get it out there to be known.

I enjoyed exploring this textile artists work to be able to understand her frenetic pace of construction, of keeping on going from one tapestry to the next almost without stopping, of being so enveloped within the weaving process through her hands, body, mind. Erin M. Riley uses eccentric weft rather than weaving side to side straight across, of filling in areas to suit the visual imagery and lettering. The unintentional consequence very much suits the subject matter and formal qualities of her compositions, with the irregular selvedge’s, visible hems, and varied weaving densities.  Her weaving skills suit the quality of her content as the imagery is superbly woven, seen and understood in context.  Through the progression of her weaving the artist has increasingly continued to move with the personal narrative of her family and home to the things that are happening in the world, and all around her. Erin M. Riley stated that she navigates the experiences we are all sharing and trying to understand how we, as humans, are changing with the world around us, or staying the same.

Erin M. Riley (2021) Weather. Wool, Cotton. 48″ x 88″ Inspired by the work of Carver Audain

What is going to keep tapestry weaving relevant in the 21st century?  We have all heard this question asked and we have heard a variety of answers.  Addressing the issues of our time is one answer and often flies in the face of the constant conversation about the timelessness of tapestry.  Many weavers are just not willing to commit their time to an idea that is challenging and results in a tapestry that confronts the viewer and demands a reaction.  The most compelling answer has to do with the next generation(s) of tapestry weavers – they are our future.  Erin certainly is a part of this conversation.  She is young, talented, productive, and best of all passionate about tapestry as a viable means of personal expression in this time.  She has combined an ancient, simple, and enduring technique with new technology for image development in her studio practice.  It is a bit ironic that the internet is both a source for her content and how most people see her work.  She has embraced both the past and the future and seems fearless in her quest for the melding of these two worlds.

Erin M. Riley (2020) Selfie Project 2020 5 100% cotton 8″ x 10″

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