Erin Riley – Public/Private Moments

Essay, Gallery 1, 2, 3, 4

This exhibition is part of ATA’s Laffer Curatorial Program, funded by a generous donation from Christine Laffer.

Curator’s Essay

Susan Iverson, Curator

Erin Riley

“Self Portrait” in Gallery 1


Erin Riley can be described as a visual reporter for her generation.  She observes her world and contemporary culture through social media, gathers images from the internet and translates them into tapestries that are often tragic, provocative, and certainly disturbing.  Much of her subject matter has to do with young women involved with drugs, drunkenness, and sexual encounters.  She is interested in the reasons behind the behavior as much as in the actions themselves.  The ideas of need, love, longing and despair are all visible in this work.


Erin Riley

“Undressing” in Gallery 1


The gathering of Erin’s source material relies on the careless sharing of images on the internet.  She can sit in the comfort of her own home or studio and gather highly personal images from people she may or may not know.  This process hints at voyeurism – but if her subjects are quite literally casting images of their lives into the atmosphere – can it be labeled as voyeurism or is it simply observation?  She is part of a generation who has grown up with the internet as a central part of their lives.  The information sharing that happens on-line has replaced private phone calls or the face-to-face, whispered conversations between friends. The documentation of one’s life on-line as a way to validate a life is pervasive among people of all ages but potentially toxic to this age group who are going through a time of intense social investigation.  Most of us have gone through stages where we have done things that we may not regret, while also being quite thankful that no real documentation of them exists to follow us through our lives.  Our close friends may have some knowledge – but the world remains ignorant of our lapses of judgment.  Now it seems that many young people are documenting their lives, moment by moment, and there is no filter on what is worthy of being disseminated to a broader audience.  By using the resulting images of this behavior for her tapestries, Erin memorializes these actions/events and offers a compelling and heartbreaking view of partying and its often solitary aftermath.  One can also wonder if the subjects think that their actions give them power and that the sharing of these images expands their sense of power and ultimately, the control they have over their own lives.  In on-line reviews and blogs these images, now embedded in tapestries, are often referred to as erotic, sexual or sensual. Erin says she “mourns” for these young women and in a 2010 artist statement she wrote, “My interests in this [sexuality and sharing] stem from trying to understand the differences between myself and my two sisters who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction” and the realization “that we all ended up with addictive traits.”


In the 21st century snapshots are frequently given as much value as the time it takes to click the shutter.  They are a throw-away commodity much like most of the textiles in our lives.  The images are looked at once or twice and deleted while the fabrics are used and washed a few times before they are passed on or discarded.  This has to do with quality and value.  Cheap garments and home furnishing fabrics are ubiquitous, as are the ever present snapshots.  When we add the medium of tapestry into this mix everything changes.  Suddenly, with the translation into a tapestry, the images take on value – or at least a perceived value.  The artist, through selection and production, has elevated the image and forever altered our perception of that original moment that was quickly and easily captured and shared.


From early pre-Columbian ceramics depicting sexual acts to contemporary paintings of women caught in a private moment – it is the artist who selects, composes and makes tangible each particular moment/action of a life.  Toulouse Lautrec’s series of images from brothels seems relevant to this conversation.  Lautrec by Lautrec authors, Philippe Huisman and M. G. Dortu wrote, “In high society promiscuity was common… It is doubtful whether the primary enticement (of brothels) was physical satisfaction, but it may well have been the joy of conquest untrammelled [sic] by paltry taboos, the sense of escape to unexplored worlds”.  Some of Lautrec’s images are charming, some erotic and some are disquieting – leaving us feeling that we have just observed a moment that the subject would prefer us not to have seen.  As in Erin’s work we have been given access to private moments – the difference is in how the images were originally found and perhaps how the subject viewed the sharing of the image.  Of course every image needs to be examined within a cultural context.


I wonder how important Warhol’s concept of “15 minutes of fame” is to Erin’s work – both for her and for the subject who originally posted the image.  Would one of the subjects  of these tapestries revel in finding the tapestry of herself on a gallery wall and maybe take another snapshot of herself in front of it?  Does the source of the subject for art making really matter once the artist has selected the image?


Erin Riley   Erin Riley

“Passed Out” on left and “Ass Shot 2” on right in Gallery 1


Tapestry has a long rich history of story telling.  These stories are often about religious or political people and events.  Within these stories there may be images of socially unacceptable or morally inappropriate behavior (according to prevailing norms) but they are often in the background and were included to act as a lesson or warning to the viewer.  The face of gluttony or greed is not pretty – and that was the point.  Historically tapestries functioned, in part, to educate the people about major social, political or religious events.  What we generally don’t see in historical tapestries is the image of a person engaged in a private, as well as dangerous or illegal moment, as the primary subject of the tapestry.  Like all of the art of the times, twentieth and twenty-first century tapestries have allowed for a very different type of story telling and visual documentation of events.  Erin’s tapestries have the potential to be classified as simple portraits, cultural documentation, sexually provocative images, or even cautionary tales.  We, as the viewers add social commentary and perhaps a personal reaction that may lend itself to a larger story.  When we look at several of these works together, we are able to push past the sense of the singular observation, put the images together, and sketch out a story.


Erin Riley

“Gateway Drugs” in Gallery 1


Much like the tapestries of Lilian Tyrrell, Erin’s work is derived from photographs and focuses on shocking or dramatic images.  Tyrell’s “Disaster Blankets” were drawn from images that originated in the news and the event depicted (war, plane crash, etc.) affected large groups of people.  The original photos behind Erin’s work are not news worthy in the traditional sense.  Closest in visual impact to Tyrell’s work are Erin’s tapestries of highways and wrecked vehicles.  We can see them as individual tragic accidents or we can read them as an outcome of lives lived carelessly.  With this second reading they converse with the figurative tapestries and lead into a cause and effect relationship.  The importance of the photographic quality to these two artists’ work is obvious in the work and supports the concepts behind the work.  Erin pushes the limits of this in some of her images where the camera capturing the original image is visible as the subject is caught photographing herself in a mirror with the camera partially covering her face.  So now we have a tapestry based on an on-line image of a photograph of a reflection of the subject.  Translation takes on a new complexity.


Erin Riley Erin Riley

“Alone Again” on left in Gallery 3 and “Nudes 6” on right in Gallery 1


While many of Erin’s tapestries are fairly straightforward interpretations of photographs, some of them are taking on interesting levels of abstraction.  In “Smoke” the rendering of the hands and the smoke is similar and this connection is enhanced by the strong value changes in each.  Although we can clearly see the image, it has the capacity to disappear as the light and dark areas shift between foreground and background.  In “View From Above” the background, which we logically identify as fabric, can just as easily be seen as sand or flowing water.  There is an overall softness to the background and to the figure – a sketchiness that makes this figure seem much less tangible than most of Erin’s other figures.  Erin has treated the figure in “Pink Nail Polish” in a similar manner but the architectural background in this tapestry grounds the figure in space and gives her more weight.  The image in Erin’s work is always recognizable but her color/value choices and the slight abstraction in some work softens the reality of the unpleasant event/situation.  The photographic quality in “Undressing” is undeniable but the chaos in parts of the background add a complexity to our understanding of the space and the figure’s movement in that space.  Erin’s more challenging compositions engage me – they allow me to spend more time with the work and to ultimately care more about the subject.


Erin Riley Erin Riley

“Smoke” on left and “Pink Nail Polish” on right in Gallery 1




With tapestry, like many art forms, there is an assumption within the profession that  exhibited work will be technically excellent.  In this regard, some of Erin’s work is problematic.  She has been so wonderfully prolific in her short career – with the completion of over 50 tapestries in six years.  It may be this speed of creation that has affected the actual technical quality of her tapestries.  I bring this up because the technical issues affect the way we look at the work and can have an unintentional consequence on how we evaluate the work.  While drawn in by the subject matter and formal qualities of her compositions, I have been pushed away by the irregular selvedges, overly visible hems and varied weaving densities.  Her weaving skills can get in the way of the quality of her content.  Her skills are improving and I hope this will soon be a non-issue when looking at her work.  I would like to wave a magic wand and have all of her tapestries take on at least the technical level of her current work.  I can only say this because of the number of times I have seen her work in person.  When the images are cropped for publication, or flattened by the photographic process, the technical issues recede and the images reign supreme.


Observations and conclusion


I look at Erin’s work as a woman, as an artist and as a tapestry weaver.  While I am filled with curiosity about her subjects and engaged with her compositions, I am also saddened by her images of this segment of society that seems to be so self-destructive.  It is this emotional connection that provokes so much interest in her work – we are all voyeuristic, compelled to look twice at the personal “car wrecks”, and then think of our own lives or the lives of our children, students and friends.  The hope we have that each generation will be smarter, stronger and better than the one before is challenged by this body of work.  From pre-history to now we humans have tried to drown out our reality with substances and actions that can take us out of this world, for at least a few moments.  There is usually a cost for this trip, be it embarrassment, a slight headache, nausea, a killer hangover, simply real time lost or a costly addiction.  So, this might be our lesson from Erin – the specifics of human frailty and the scale of image/information sharing may change, but people do not.

What is going to keep tapestry weaving relevant in the 21st century?  We have all heard this question asked and we have heard a variety of answers.  Addressing the issues of our time is one answer and often flies in the face of the constant conversation about the timelessness of tapestry.  Many weavers are just not willing to commit their time to an idea that is challenging and results in a tapestry that confronts the viewer and demands a reaction.  The most compelling answer has to do with the next generation(s) of tapestry weavers – we have to support them now – they are our future.  Erin certainly is a part of this conversation.  She is young, talented, productive and best of all passionate about tapestry as a viable means of personal expression in this time.  She has combined an ancient, simple and enduring technique with new technology for image development in her studio practice.  It is a bit ironic that the internet is both a source for her content and also the means by which most people see her work.  She has embraced both the past and the future and seems fearless in her quest for the melding of these two worlds.


About the Curator

Susan Iverson lives in rural Virginia near the small town of Montpelier and is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.  She earned a MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and a BFA from Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, CO.  Her work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States and is included in many collections including The Art in Embassies Program and the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.