With amazing tapestries, Erin M. Riley claims a space for healing



When I was fourteen, I went into the bathroom with a powder blue Swiss Army knife and pressed it against my arm. I was shocked at the bright red color of the bloodstains that started to appear on my pale skin. Self-harm highlights everything, but it also looks blurry, like your body is floating. I thought about these dichotomies – sharpness and smoothness, and how they relate to trauma, as I walked through The consensual reality of healing fantasies, the solo exhibition of fiber artist Erin M. Riley, now on display at the PPOW gallery. In Riley’s large-scale and surprisingly detailed tapestries, the vivid and shocking colors of violence and trauma run through the muted grays and whites – the warning yellow stripe surrounding freezer trucks outside a hospital of New York during the pandemic; a bright yellow walkman in a pile of photographs, CDs and dirty laundry; the red blood of a bruised hand – flashing like the vibrant feathers under the dark wings of a bird you might learn in a science textbook. Each strikingly realistic image conceals the underlying hand-weaving process. The artist sources wool from closed textile factories across the United States and washes, strips and dyes her yarn by hand before weaving it on a Macomber loom.

Erin M. Riley, “Beauty Lives Here” (2020), wool, cotton, 64 x 48 inches

One of the tapestries, titled “Beauty Lives Here” (2020), features a marble composition notebook with the name “ERIN” written on it, the words “THERE IS A WAY OUT… THERE IS !! scribbled in capital letters on its binding. During a May 26 panel discussion with artist Joe Houston and PPOW director Trey Hollis, Riley talked about walking around high school with the notebook this piece is based on. “Nobody ever said, ‘What do you need a way out of? “”, noted the artist. These works are a reminder of the speed with which our culture is inclined to downplay the concerns of young women. Riley’s works unabashedly claim space for subjects that are often hidden from mainstream society – domestic violence, female sexuality, and self-harm, as well as everyday images of women’s experiences – uplifting them through a medium. most associated with religious iconography and the nobility of the Middle Ages. Her work draws on the traditions of feminist artists like Ana Mendieta, Faith Ringgold and Judy Chicago, who, as Vivien Green Fryd writes in Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, each used works of art to “speak the unspeakable and publicize the crimes of rape, incest and domestic violence.”

Erin M. Riley, “Anxiety” (2020), wool, cotton, 72 1/2 x 100 inches

In her tapestries, Riley brings to the fore experiences that are often seen as the superficial expressions of young women seeking attention. “Anxiety” (2020), shows a photograph of scars from dermatillomania, a form of self-harm, usually hidden under clothing. Several of the works in the exhibition feature a tattooed woman posing naked for a webcam, negotiating bodily pleasure in a way often seen as narcissistic and slandered by our culture’s hypocritical attitudes toward sex. What is wrong with craving or enjoying attention, ask these works. They present the challenges of trauma management as normal aspects of life, as everyday as taking a sexy selfie or watching a TV show on your laptop. In “Affair, The” (2020), a computer screen shows a JPEG of a naked selfie; behind the photo are open browser tabs for reporting on domestic violence, the national suicide prevention lifeline, and watch The case TV series on Amazon. This piece is in conversation with several other works featuring brochures on domestic violence from the 1970s (“SOS”, “WAVAW”, “Celebrate” and “Community Problem”, all 2020), which the artist noted as “orange emergency, ”communicating the need for help with the code, much like a crypto phrase scrawled on a notebook. Riley said she started creating these brochure images during the pandemic, due to an increase in domestic violence. Through this work, Riley imagines how such messages impacted her own mother’s relationships with men.

Installation view, Erin M. Riley: The Consensus Reality of Healing Fantasies, PPOW Gallery, 2021

Riley’s work presents different ways of dealing with generational trauma and reclaiming our body. From sexuality and creative expression to drug use and self-harm, Consensual reality do not pass judgment on the best way to heal. Rather, Riley places these various avenues in front of the viewer for us to witness, refusing to let these experiences be dismissed or ignored.

Erin M. Riley: The Consensus Reality of Healing Fantasies runs until June 12 at the PPOW Gallery (392 Broadway, Tribeca, Manhattan).

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