Fabric art is best known as the domain of soothing abstract wall hangings, but it has a provocative side, too. Erin M. Riley is a weaver in Brooklyn who uses her medium’s reputation for modesty to her advantage by handcrafting huge, painterly tapestries depicting provocative images of drug paraphernalia, car wrecks, and nude selfies (her specialty). Being woven out of yarn gives them a soft, hazy aura, but her pieces are charged with emotion, and ask challenging questions about sex, addiction, and control over one’s image. We convinced the workaholic artist to take a break and step away from the loom for a conversation about privacy, OCD, and sexting.
ERIN M. RILEY: I started at school. I was interested in fashion and painting. The fashion design department was really design-y, and painting was a little too white male arty. Fibers was a major I never even knew about. I took weaving freshman year as a requirement and just didn't stop.
If fashion was design-y and painting was white male arty, what was fiber art like?
The weirdos. It was mostly all women, not a lot of ego. Everyone was a little introverted, making for their own survival, almost.
Why do you think that is?
It's things that take a really long time, things that are really meticulous. There are rules, but as soon as you learn them you can break them, so there's this weird, like, independence. The medium, it's not like glass, where there are rules and if you break them you'll get burned. In fibers, there are rules, and if you break them you might have to spend three hours undoing something, but it's not really life or death. I think people who are drawn to quiet, process-oriented things are just calmer, or they're looking for calm. I know I've talked to ladies in their sixties and I've said, "Are you a patient person?" and they're like, "No, only with weaving." When I look at myself, I'm the same way. Yesterday I spent 12 hours weaving, but I'm not the most patient person.
What was it like for you to discover nude selfies as your subject matter?
It was definitely at a time when I was trying to figure myself out. A lot of my work hinged on the chaos in my family, so for many years I was working with drug addiction, because that's what was going on with my family. When everyone got sober it was like, oh, I can be sexy. There were all these new layers to life rather than just being stressed. It was like, oh, what is it like to just be a person dating and sexting? Who am I, independent of this chaos? So it was fun. I used to use sourced images, and then it got to a point where people were sending me images, and now I mainly use my own pictures, or a combination of my body using other source images for taking images–a format or composition that I mimic with my own body.
It's fine. It just seemed like the right thing to do. A lot of people were saying I was outside of my work, by not using myself or whatever. The whole time I had thought about my work as self-portraits, so I think it just made sense. It's a very weird thing to have nude art of yourself, but then keep a pretty modest Internet appearance. I would never show pictures, but I'd show art of myself. I'm trying to figure that one out.
Has working with your body as a subject changed your relationship with it at all?
Yeah for sure. It's much less this thing that overwhelms me, insofar as fixing things or stressing about things. It's just a thing. I've woven my body so many times now that it just exists, and for the most part it's not changing. It's more comfortable. I think when I was younger I was sending images that I was pretty conscious of the fact that they might be shared. That was something I always knew was a reality, so I always made sure to take pictures that were appealing. I dated a lot of guys in bands so it was like, if everyone in the van saw this, would I be okay? That was my meter.
It's really interesting that so many people consider, when taking a sexy selfie, that it may be put in front of an audience.
I thought what was fascinating at the beginning was you could find people's Photobucket images that were just on Google. Back in the day the Internet was a lot more real, I feel like. You could tap into, not people's phones, but their Flickr, or these things that people thought were private but were actually in Google. So you could find pictures of girls with their dirty underwear in the background or the toilet or whatever. It was really fascinating to me that we're so focused on making sure our body looks perfect. The poses and the breathing in and all of these different things. The hands are always really funny, because often people forget that their hands are doing something weird, but their ass looks great.
It's interesting how along with all the rest of these weird little skill sets that people have developed online, everyone's also an experienced nude self-portraitist. A whole aesthetic has evolved.
Yes. It's often this one area of this house where they have really good light. It's always like on the floor by the window. The funny thing about my new studio is there's no windows, so I stopped posting a lot of selfies because the light is not great. What would my life be like if I had a window? I might be taking cuter selfies, I don't know.
Do you think there will be a time in the near future where it just won't be considered a big deal to have nude photos somewhere on the Internet?
No. I think it's still really shocking. I think people are really, really, really offended and shocked. I have people all the time tell me I'm objectifying women and contributing to rape culture and all of these things. I think the rules of the Internet have to change. Shaming young girls for things they do when they're younger...I think sex is held over people's heads like this. "Don't do this because your future husband is going to judge you" or something. I'm still shocked when people are shocked.
But a lot of people, particularly artists, on platforms like Twitter and Tumblr don't seem to think it's a big deal to post their own nudes online.
I wonder if it's because the Internet is just so vast now. I feel like when I was growing up there was an end to the Internet. You'd get to a place and be like oh, there's no new content. Now there's no end. The idea of someone going back three years in your Tumblr...not everyone's going to do that.
What are you working on now?
Right now I'm working on a show that's basically about the layers of visual life. I'm working with self-portraits, porn screenshots, and then domestic violence stuff. So, working with Deadspin screenshots from interviews, and also bruised photos of celebrities. Just sort of the weird violence that we consume as women and then also have to observe as women. The subtle, "Is he stalking me?"... I had this text message conversation with this guy who found me on Facebook. He started texting me, and I didn't really respond because I didn't know him. He was offering me dick pics and I said no, and that got him really mad. So he found out I was coming home from a residency and he was like, "I'll be at your house when you get home." The weird things, like, so all I could've done was just receive a dick pic and then I wouldn't have had this awkward, really uncomfortable situation? So that text message conversation is what I'm weaving right now.
Some of your new works explore your relationship with obsessive behaviors.
Trichotillomania [compulsive hair plucking] was something that I never knew a word for until a couple years ago, but it's something I've done my whole, from young adult through now. It was really bad in high school and college. Now it's not a big deal. It was something that I knew was a problem but I never told anyone. With any mental illness or bizarre thing, regular people, especially where I'm from, it's blue collar, it's like "Well just stop doing it" or "Stop thinking that." I knew that explaining it to my family wouldn't be fruitful or supportive, so I just kind of dealt with it. Then I started to look into it and realized I really needed to make a concerted effort to deal with my anxiety and the OCD impulse-control stuff. It's interesting because I posed about it on Instagram and there were all these responses from people who are knitters or weavers who all have the same thing. They're sort of drawn to these mediums that keep their hands busy.