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Erin Riley, "Nudes 27", 2015
Erin Riley, "Nudes 27", 2015Courtesy of the artist

Tapestries for the Tinder generation

Meet the Brooklyn artist weaving her selfies with vibrators, booze, and birth control

There are things that you expect to see in tapestries, and – depending on your time frame – those things are typically vestal virgins with unicorns and geometric Southwestern designs. And then of course there are things that you don’t expect to see in tapestries: vibrators, Four Loko, birth control, and variously tattooed chicks snapping sexy selfies.

Brooklyn-based textile artist Erin Riley takes this unexpected subject matter as her focal point, appropriating social media images and weaving them into intricate tapestries. The acutely beautiful result constitutes a refreshingly modern take on a classic craft. Here, we talk with Erin about the warp and weft of the selfie; what it’s like to weave every inch of a naked body; and what’s next (hint: it involves porn).

Could you talk a bit about your process? I'm wondering where you cull your images from and how you turn them into tapestries.

Erin Riley: It is for sure quite time-consuming. My work begins from being an online inhabitant, collecting images from Tumblr, Instagram, blogs, from my own photos, Facebook, Google Images, et cetera. I am always on the lookout for beautiful shapes and images that might translate well to the tapestry language. The images are then traced, projected to size onto a large kraft paper cartoon, which is used as a blueprint under the warp. The actual weaving starts with making a warp, threading the loom, dyeing the yarn, preparing the yarn and getting ready to weave. Then I spend hours sitting at the loom weaving the imagery. The pieces are then cut off the loom, hemmed, and attached to hanging hardware.

And how did you get into textile art in the first place?

Erin Riley: I learned sewing in home economics class in middle school. I got my first sewing machine when I was eight and became obsessed with sewing, quilting, shopping at the fabric store. I explored textiles in the form of clothing up until college where I finally learned how to weave, which opened up my eyes to all things weaving and tapestry.

When we're not taking them, we might wonder what the selfie means, what its cultural import is. What's your take on it?

Erin Riley: As a woman who is nearly 30 and has been documenting herself since she was around 15 in one way or another (from crappy pixelated webcams to iPhones), I have thought a lot about this. Of course there are plenty of issues that come from existing solely online, but as someone who has a healthy text/online life and a decent IRL life I understand the necessity of sharing imagery of the self and body. You walk into museums across the country and you will see nude sculptures or paintings dating back to the 1500s and earlier. While classical figure painting is mostly passé, I find selfies to be an interesting take on the classic Nude. As humans we are constantly looking for love and acceptance; we want to remind ourselves that we exist so as to get out of our minds. Being in touch with our physical selves allows for that connection to others.

How do you feel about the women you weave?

Erin Riley: I am the women that I weave, so I love them, I am critical of them, I support them, I am living through them, et cetera. Being a woman is a complicated job, but in the end I am truly happy to have the access that I do into the most intimate moments between people.

Your works are suffused with this intense sensuality. Is there something inherently erotic about weaving, or the selfie, to you? Or does the eroticism of your art stem from the viewer's sense that she is a voyeur, peeking in on a 'private' moment?

Erin Riley: I think the female body is quite beautiful, and weaving curves is much more satisfying than weaving straight lines, so I enjoy the process quite a lot. Sitting with the image in front of me and spending hours on every inch of the body allows for a closeness that really only sex allows. The selfie to me is all about revealing while concealing – that tease is exactly what is erotic.

The selfie and the tapestry seem opposed by nature. The selfie is typically offhand, vanishing into the Snapchat ether or getting buried in cyberspace, whereas the tapestry is the product of a slow, deliberate process and meant to last for generations. How do you navigate these sometimes complex intersections?

Erin Riley: As most ladies and probably men know, it doesn't take one shot to get the best selfie: it’s a process. I equate much of the primping and to-do of getting the right angles to setting up the loom and getting ready to weave. While the image might be consumed quickly, lovers might save it for months and look back to it, or share it with their friends who will consume it over and over. I have always felt vulnerable sharing an image, and the knowledge of having certain images out in the world is always with me. My work with tapestry is a reflection of both my age and personality. In many ways being a tapestry weaver is secondary to the life I am navigating online... The imagery is not traditional to tapestry but neither am I. For many years it bothered me to be alienated from the tapestry-weaving community because of my unconventional use of the medium, but I have come to be accepted as someone who is continuing the tradition of weaving into younger generations.

What's next for you?

Erin Riley: Right now I am working on large-scale tapestries – I just finished three 6ft by 4ft self-portraits and I am in love with this size. So, I have a bunch of new epic pieces planned which will take up the next few months. And as a small-scale relief from pieces that take months I am starting a project that has been in the works for many years. I will be weaving the stills from porn at the moment of the viewer’s climax. These will mostly be represented as blurred color studies on the flesh filled video clip, which will be a fun challenge into color blending and abstraction.

Can’t get enough of Erin’s tapestries? Follow her on Instagram here