A Tapestry of Selfies: The Art of Erin M. Riley

By Lynn Trenning

When 2011 Alumna Artist-in-Residence Erin M. Riley began her selfies series of woven tapestries, she was not the depicted self.  Her inspiration came from collages she created from photographs posted on the Internet.  

“I weave tapestries of the pictures you would delete if you ever uploaded that drunk night of debauchery from your camera,” Riley told an interviewer at Fecal Face in 2011.  

She searched for images she found to be poignant and relative to her work.  She was fascinated with her generations’ predilection to document provocative and vulnerable images of themselves, as though to remind each other of their existence.

 

A photo posted by Erin M. Riley (@erinmriley) on

In a way Riley’s tapestries are an anomaly; she uses an ancient art form to bring an element of permanence to images of fleeting behavior of 21st century women.  They are also a continuum of history; a modern woman using a medium traditionally dominated by women to create art that is relevant in its social commentary about women.  

The Internet images Riley weaves reflect our era’s pervasive comfort level with self-exposure, and seeming indifference to privacy.  Riley intentionally searches for images she finds both attractive and disturbing.   The woven renditions of these image’s faces are unrecognizable.  


Erin M. Riley, Nudes 9 (2013), wool, cotton

Many of her works feature overtly sexual images; a woman cupping together her breasts to create cleavage; two women in various stages of undress kissing as they lay atop a scattering of beer kegs; a woman whose super short shorts are unzipped, while she holds her naked breast in her right hand and photographs herself with her left.  

Others highlight the residuals of sex.  There’s a girl holding a notebook with the words “I hope she gives you herpes,” and another of the outstretched neck of a woman with a hickey that looks like a wound.   The images tell a story but not one anyone has shared with Riley.  

“As someone who spent the majority of her childhood connecting with strangers via images through yearbooks, Friendster, Myspace and other social media outlets, I am able to create narratives in my head about the people I weave,” she admits.   

 

A photo posted by Erin M. Riley (@erinmriley) on

As Riley’s work gained exposure, her subject matter shifted.  Riley’s Instagram fans began voluntarily sending her images of themselves.  “I use them as I would a found image but I have a much stronger connection to them,” she reveals.  “It feels like a generous gesture, having women open up to me is an amazing experience.  I think people (especially women) are taught to be modest and coy but have this exhibitionist side to them that sending me photos fulfills.”

Now Riley has added images of herself to her collection of subject matter.  Her Selfie Project series are images from her personal iPhone photo collection that have been woven digitally on a jacquard loom with dye sublimation.   They feature her in various stages of undress and self-exploration.  


Erin M. Riley, “Selfie Project 2015 5” (2015), cotton

 “As I grow up and become more comfortable in my own skin my work starts to reflect that,” confesses Riley. “I started out just touching on different issues that affected me as a woman and now I am trying to be more open and transparent with the content I am interested in.”

Riley’s time at McColl Center in 2011 was formative.

“Spending three months living alone for the first time, working every day on images that had always intrigued me but I never indulged in, allowed me to really immerse myself into my thoughts and develop a language of imagery that has stayed with my work until this day,” she reflects.  

“[Having] very few distractions really helps to solidify a studio practice, especially [for] a young working artist. (I was two years out of graduate school). At McColl Center I made some of the work that got me the most attention.”

Image, top/left: Erin M. Riley, “Undressing 3” (2014), wool, cotton