Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

In the Galleries: Erin M. Riley at PPOW

I had the good fortune to catch Erin Riley’s recent showing at PPOW Gallery in New York. Entitled “The Consensual Reality of Healing Fantasies,” the show featured sixteen tapestries, half of which exceeded 8 feet in height or width and all of which were woven in 2020. (If this reality makes you feel like an unproductive slug, you are not alone.)

Installation view, PPOW Gallery

Installation View, PPOW Gallery

The gallery statement summarizes the content of the show best. The themes present in this body of work include “relationships, memories, fantasies, sexual violence, and trauma. Collaging personal photographs, images sourced from the internet, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera to create her woolen compositions, the Brooklyn-based weaver exposes the range of women’s lived experiences and how trauma weighs on the search for self-identity.”  

In sharing my experience of this show, it is hard to pare it down. The big take away is this overwhelming “Push/Pull”  between the artistry of the images and the subject matter being addressed. One stands in this weird space where you are looking at very private and/or very disturbing images that you might like to turn away from if they weren’t so incredibly rendered in woven form. For example, you examine “The Accident,” and see the wounded hand of a domestic violence victim. Her larger than life cuts and bruises are at once very hard to look at and so beautifully woven in rich reds and transparent pinks and yellows that you cannot stop looking at them. As a weaver, I compartmentalize the trauma and focus on the weaving. It softens the blow, but the imagery still haunts me.

The same can be said of her tapestry “Blue Tarp.”  A  horribly crumpled car sits on a blue tarp in a featureless evidence locker. The fatality aspect of the crash is pretty obvious, a gruesome back story strongly implied. The expression ” to make a wreck of ones life” comes to mind. Erin said it was inspired by the work of Frances Bacon, and I get it. Again, I compartmentalize to protect my heart and focus on the incredible weaving.

This unsettling “I shouldn’t be looking at this” feeling is also present when looking at Erin’s nude images of herself. Although her tattoos offer a few clues about the person in that beautiful skin, her faceless portraits present as proxies for countless other images shaped by, and shared over, the internet by a generation of young women.  “The Affair” reads like an essay on what living online in the internet age is like.  Each window tab of the computer screen tells us how she simultaneously consumes content (the movie The Affair), messages with someone (“wyd?”), webcams her nude body (to sext later?), does research (in this case, the Me Too movement), and interacts with a helpline - all layered over top what looks to be a crime scene photo or video of some news event she is following on her computer.  It’s a LOT, but it shows how the internet has impacted the concurrence, range, and depth of our experiences, and how that state of being intensified during the pandemic.

Perhaps the isolation of 2020 led Erin to turn more inward for source material than usual. In the striking tapestry “Anxiety,” Erin goes beyond showing her body in a flirtatious way to let us in on her secret struggle with Dermatillomania and self harm. Millions of people deal with this issue, but this piece struck me as so personal and vulnerable that I actually could not compartmentalize this one. The contradiction of her “Treasure” tattoo and the damage she has done to herself hit like a brick. The mother in me was moved to tears. I stood there feeling devastated by it, unable to scrutinize or photograph her woven wounds. 

Anxiety, 2020, wool, cotton, 72 x 100 inches

Which brings me to my favorite pieces in the show: “The Rose” and “Beauty Lives Here.” These are huge reproductions of the covers of Erin’s old High School composition notebooks, complete with masking tape and girlish scrawls. 

The Rose, 2020, wool, cotton, 64 x 48 inches

If you’ve had the pleasure to meet Erin, you know that she is a strikingly sweet and generous person. Although I’ve only met her once, these notebook covers capture my initial impression of her perfectly:  She is both introverted and irreverent (“sXe”, anarchy symbol); she is both super cute (smiley) and goth as hell (black rose); both playful (“sigh”) and deeply serious. She knows her worth (“Beauty Lives Here”) yet there is evidence of struggle (“There is a way out”). Judging these books by their covers, it is clear that there is more to Erin than her visually arresting exterior. Of course she is much older now, but I am grateful she shared these youthful “self portraits” with us.

Beauty Lives Here, 2020, wool, cotton, 64 x 48 inches

So I said up front that it was difficult to pare this post down to just one thing. I’ve gotten a little hung up on subject matter, but there is so much more I would like to show you!  I will quit for now but next week I will to post about her approaches to weaving realistic imagery from photographic sources. There is so much more that I would like to share. TTFN

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