An interview artist with Erin Riley

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Erin was born in Massachusetts in 1985. She received her MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and her BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally since 2004 and published in Hi-Fructose, WSJ Magazine, Playboy Magazine, Juxtapoz Magazine and New American Painting. She is currently an artist in residence at the Museum of Arts and Design and has received awards and residencies from the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and McColl Center for Visual Art. She is a Ruth and Harold Chenven Grant and a Kittredge Foundation Grant recipient. www.erinmriley.com

Your work is a combination of traditionally “feminine” craft with contemporary digital media. Technology and digital media are often categorized as male fields. Do you perceive the two as being gendered? Do you view the two as being at odds?

I never perceived either as being gendered. In my early teens I was modifying and building various social network profiles up with html and all of the how-tos were available online. The internet in the beginning had no hierarchy and so I didn’t initially associate technology to class or gender, although now I can see how gender plays a huge role in the successes of technology. I was taught weaving in a historical context in which cultures regimented certain aspects to different genders, but it was never consistent, folk lore of women not being allowed near the indigo bath on their cycle for fear of ruining its chemistry, men doing all the weaving in certain regions, women doing all of it in others. Tapestry was an anonymous craft, often a translation of a painting woven by laborers who were never given any credit and modern weavers made skillful and abstract works that never outright addressed the gender of the maker. The book “Zeros + Ones” shows how women and women’s work in particular–weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating–have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, the very technologies that are now revolutionizing the Western world. It has changed how I see the technology of weaving and how the roles of women land on the timeline of early computing.

The process is obviously a labor of love, time, and skill. Do you see your medium as lending seriousness or legitimacy to the “selfie”, a medium often trivialized as vain or superficial?

I think that society will trivialize anything it can, and the selfie is no different. Looking back into self portraiture people have been depicting themselves in their art forever, even the hand print in the caves of Borneo is a selfie of sorts. Most photographers take images of themselves in a mirror with a giant camera covering their faces, painters can always rely on their own body as a model for portrait painting. Being human is about connecting with others on an emotional level, reiterating to the world that we exist and having a direct response to that existence, the internet is literally that. While I think that most people won’t go anywhere near an emotional read of “selfie” I find how people evolve and choose to present themselves on the internet unendingly fascinating. I chose to title the series of “selfies” Nudes so as to reference the long history of depicting the human body in art history and for sure to legitimize this aspect of being human in the modern age.

Oftentimes your weavings are based on found imagery from the internet, sometimes on “selfies” women submit willingly for use in your work. How do you see this as differing from the male gaze and appropriation a la Richard Prince’s Instagram pieces?

Part of being a woman for me has always included photographing my body for the pleasures of others. It evolved into being for myself as well, but in the beginning I was contorting myself in front of webcams to pique the interests of my suitors. This activity of sending imagery sometimes resulted in images in which I felt the most sexy but which didn’t hold the attention of my viewers. They requested more skin, they wanted action, closeups, etc. Going back through the images I was always fascinated by the disconnect between the images that I felt were sexiest and the images that drove my mostly male partners crazy. With my work I hope to render imagery in which women feel the best, give those images the time to breathe and be appreciated. While I am using images I don’t have the rights to I am interested in remarking on the openness of the internet and blurring the lines between female experiences despite how different they might be on the surface. I don’t weave faces or tattoos (except my own) and tend to change the hair color and various other details so as to not say “this woman” but “woman”.

Do you feel an increased responsibility as a female artist depicting women’s bodies? How do you choose which to render?

As I grow up and have a healthier body image myself I am much more aware of depicting women of all shapes and sizes. I am growing much more interested in how unique each woman is and how they depict that, which poses or perspectives they have figured out to work for them. Women send me images all of the time but I also come across women who are wrestling with accepting their body as it is, who might feel empowered by presenting themselves on the internet when their thighs touch or they have a curvier figure or if they are insecure about anything with themselves. I get not liking how you look, so when someone sends me an image they would never show anyone I feel so lucky because women are so rad! I tend to work through a series when I am weaving, and in a lot of ways sexting type imagery goes through waves of popularity, bathroom pictures were all the rage, now it’s asses, everyone is sending the over-the-shoulder ass pics so I feel like weaving these trends is important to keeping my work authentic.

How does your self-portraiture differ? Obviously there is an element of it being ongoing with your own life, or diaristic in a way. What are your intentions in being sexual in a public way?

When I first started using images of other women it was always as a reflection of myself but I was getting lots of backlash in regards to “using” other people’s sexuality and vulnerable experiences as a way to further my work. I felt a responsibility to step up to my words and use the images that I had of me to prove I wasn’t judging or shaming anyone in my work.

I grew up in a sexually repressed household/era/geographical region/religion/America but developed very early and had an intense sexual curiosity that only mimicked that of my male peers. I didn’t feel shameful but I also knew that it wasn’t something to be proud of or flaunt openly. Much of the value of women was put in how little they had sex, but I had lots of sex and masturbated constantly and it was fun so as I grew up I had to wrestle with that dichotomy. Being openly sexual through my work allows me to address this evaluation of women based solely on their sexuality. The images I use are one small aspect of the intensely layered experience that it is to be a woman.

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