Meet Erin M. Riley, the Artist Turning Sexts into Epic Tapestries

A few years ago, the artist Erin M. Riley was in a rush to go out when she nicked her leg shaving. The cut started gushing blood. She considered cancelling her plans, or at least putting the sexts she was sending on hold, but instead she sent a picture of the gash. Eventually, she even turned the image into a tapestry.

Stretching six feet tall, "4am Hookup Prep” is one of the massive woven works in her new solo show about “the unsexy moments before you are sexy,” as she described it, now up at Brooklyn’s Brilliant Champions Gallery through July 26th. Instantly recognizable from her tattoos, the artist also makes cameos in other works, posing seductively with a variety of cell phones – all based on images she’s sent since getting a camera and webcam in her teens, even before she took up weaving on a whim at art school at 19.

“There was a point in my life when I asked everyone, ‘Do you have pictures of me? I want them all back because I want to make art out of them,’” the 31-year old artist said.

Riley’s always been present in her work, even though, until recently, she worked almost entirely with found images of other women: “For me, I was just using other bodies in place of mine,” she said. “But I got a lot of people saying I was taking advantage of people or exploiting them.” She’s insistent, though, that she never meant to be predatory – and that she barely thinks of the men in her audience. “I think they’re more for women,” she said. She paused to consider this. “Men who don’t understand, it’s going to be hard for them to understand.”

Her porn stills, for example, like the ones that caught the critic Jerry Saltz’s eye earlier this year at Myla Dalbesio’s stand-out show at Spring/Break, have been especially misinterpreted: They aren’t simply random images, but screenshots that Riley takes when masturbating at the moment that she orgasms. “Despite me presenting it as personal, people didn’t ever take it to be personal, which is understandable," she said. "It’s just a screenshot of porn, and I think a lot of people wrote it off as shock art."

Encouraged by the response to a recent post she made on her popular Instagram account of a work she’d made dealing with her trichotillomania, Riley had decided to get even more explicit. “I was like, okay, I can talk about these things. I can make cute or sexy work that’s also personal and sort of dark and talk about mental illness, and it’s fine."

Even in her teens, it never bothered Riley that the nudes she sent would likely be shared without her permission, but it took a while for her to feel free to incorporate that into her art. “It felt like it didn’t balance out – being feminist, being sexual, and wanting to be sexy,” she said.

That changed, though, when she spent a summer at the public library a few years ago reading up on pro-sex feminist literature like Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. Now her work freely references more problematic topics like the porn industry, or cis-specific struggles like periods. Her new pieces are entirely unapologetic, and some even stretch up to eight by eight feet, thanks to one of the three looms she keeps in the basement of her Williamsburg studio.

“I think a lot of people learn weaving from samplers or really delicate women’s work,” Riley said. “But I was learning about these women from the 60's who were making massive pieces of work using all sorts of materials and giant looms that don’t exist today.” She has taken their “epic scale perspective” to heart, even if it means a single work could take up to 600 hours.

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