Erin M. Riley
Handwoven tapestry with hand dyed wool on a nylon warp, 24” x 28”
Erin M. Riley is an artist working mainly in Philadelphia and her medium of choice is tapestry, which, even in this current boom of textile art, is unusual. Her series of hand-woven tapestries which recreate images she finds on the internet of girls behaving badly really caught my attention. The images shock, partly because of their explicit content and partly because of the desperate attention-seeking behaviour we associate with this kind of exhibitionism. (Aside: yes, I am a prude, but no, I do not consider the above image “explicit”. This particular piece was chosen in part because I’m trying to keep it PG around here.)
In an interview with SAVANT, Riley discusses how her work explores the ways in which women participate in their own exploitation as they attempt to conform to a misguided ideal of the hyper-sexualized woman. Riley is also interested in how the internet can capture and immortalize those events. Riley says: “I choose the images I do for their inherent lack of thought for the consequences.”
When I saw the tapestries, I couldn’t help thinking of the ancient Greek myth of Philomela who, after being brutally raped by Tereus, her brother-in-law, had her tongue cut out by the offender so that she could never tell of the crime. As further insurance, Tereus locks her in a cabin in the woods and returns to his wife, Philomela’s sister.
Philomela, whose “speechless lips cannot address the wrongs that have been done her,” uses her “native wit”, sets up her loom and “starts to weave / threads of deep purple on a white background, depicting the crime.” (Ovid, VI.827-834)
Riley’s tapestries, in a modern-day twist of this theme, depict young women offering sexual imagery of themselves, but unlike Philomela, who sacrifices what is left of her modesty to tell the tale of her suffering with the view of getting justice, the young women in Riley’s tapestries appear to have sacrificed their modesty without any coercion and with very little care for the potential fallout. In some ways, I see Riley’s hand-woven tapestries as a proxy for these girls, giving voice to an unconscious victim. Riley weaves her sorrow, her rage, and her accusation into the work and perhaps she directs her response to both the young women who blindly participate in their own objectification and the male-centric culture which encourages them. The work is simultaneously sad and funny, protective and accusatory. In short, Riley’s tapestries reveal that uncomfortable disconnect between the feminine and female sexuality, forcing the viewer to consider the validity of such notions.
I keep seeing images of Riley’s work popping up on Tumblr, but I get the sense that people are more interested in its shock value and its novelty rather than the ideas that produced it, especially since more often than not, the work isn’t attributed. Anyway, sometimes it’s worth slowing down to stop and consider the what and the why when an image captures our attention.