In recent years in her small Brooklyn studio, artist Erin M. Riley installed a decades-old, industrial-sized loom—bigger than a Smartcar and untouched by its previous owner. In coffee-fueled and often improvisational spurts, Riley weaves figurative tapestries with a lush, gradient color palette—prepping the yarn herself with up to forty hand-dyed colors. You may have seen her work at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, or stopped scrolling for her heavily-circulated “Year of Porn,” a patchwork tapestry series compiled of lesbian flash videos, each square paused and screen-captured at a moment of climax.
In recent work, however, Riley has embarked upon a brazen, biographical portrayal of her own body, her webcams and selfies, and her personal, romantic relics and sex toys. “The tattoos can kind of date the works,” she told us, considering her recent series at Brilliant Champions in Bushwick: 18/F/Bi/MA.
Deciphering the self-titled exhibition: 18 yrs. old; Female; Bisexual; Massachusettan. This bare, post-and-lintel framework of an identity—the search criterion for a dating app and a basic, online presence—is fortified by the wealth of personal, autobiographical detail in works like Things Left Behind; on a cluttered dresser, memorabilia like traded plugs and piercings, hardcore festival stubs, and A.A. tickets surround a mirror whose angled reflection resembles the perspective of a webcam. You can glimpse the tattoo, “Treasure.”
“The camera today exists in many ways and perspectives,” Riley says of her selfies, webcam and flip-phone photos, “For many years online, who you were wasn’t who you had to be. You could be 18 when you were 30. You didn’t really ever use your own images; It was more like trading of sexualized imagery… Using my own images [in my art] was like coming out as myself.”
As a student of art history and an equal-rights feminist, I had begun to bemoan most female nudes in art, complaining that man has already covered every angle of the boob there is. Seeing The Beginning, I felt more optimistic; I remembered the very non-sexual moment of telling my girlfriend I didn’t mind her own tweezing—“obsessive or excessive grooming,” Riley calls it.
Despite the personal, pornographic associations we place on Riley’s vulnerable figures, and despite Riley’s omission of any facial features or expressions, the tenderness of the color palette and the intimacy of detail breath love and adoration, and bring us closer to empathizing with the patterns of this individual—and therefore to understanding our own shielded behaviors. “We exist online with the personas we inhabit,” Riley says, “This show is about the things we hide.”
You can follow Brilliant Champions and Erin Riley on Instagram: @brilliantchampions, @erinmriley. Brilliant Champions is located at 5 Central Ave. in Brooklyn, where you should be before the show closes on July 26.