When I think of tapestry, I think of my grandparents’ house. Each room had at least a couple hanging on the walls. Not the expansive (and expensive) Belgian ones that decorate the Vatican and other European sanctoriums, but small ones, done by my grandmother, of English interiors, childhood scenes and landscapes of thatched roofs, floral gardens and footpaths that trailed off beyond the timber frame. They weren’t spectacular, and they didn’t reflect any aspect of life as I knew it, but they were special in their own way. I loved watching grandma attach the linen to the stretcher, prepare the wool and count out the starting point. And then I’d watch with fascination as the designs began to emerge. Having said that, I was never so enraptured that I wanted to take it up myself. It seemed a bit too Jane Austen-esque for me. But then Grandma never put naked chicks and lesbians dry-humping on beer kegs in her designs. And the thought of adding a vibrator to her work never crossed her mind. I hope.
The same cannot be said of Brooklyn-based weaver Erin M Riley, whose very modern take on the ladylike art of tapestry sees her appropriate images taken from social media of bathroom selfies, sexy photos that went viral, messy nights out and drug culture. There are personal images of girls flashing their bits, nipple slips, intimate moments and bad decisions. They’re images we’ve seen across our televisions and smart phones a thousand times over, but in the context of tapestry’s long history as a gentle art, they have a shock value lost when seen in regular media. Far from being an exercise in voyeurism, Riley’s tapestries remind us how desensitised we’ve become to these types of depictions.
And yet, the fascinating thing about Riley’s work is that, despite the semi-pornographic tone, her portraits retain a sense of strong femininity. Recreated in wool immediately softens the image. The texture, the warp and weft of tapestry, adds a layer of fragility that directly contradicts what we’ve come to believe of selfie culture and the, erm, art of sexting. They are weirdly feminist this time round, powerful statements about our changing view of women and how we expect a woman to act.
Though the imagery is highly contemporary, the method of weaving remains true to tapestry’s origins. Before beginning a work, the wool is washed, stripped and dyed by Riley, who uses a large Macomber floor loom to weave her kinky magic. Each tapestry takes between forty and eighty hours to complete, depending on size. The finished works show that Riley is masterful in her understanding of both tone and technique.
Tapestry used to be very much a communal craft, with the artist’s identity of less consequence than the finished product. They were functional too, serving to insulate and absorb sound as well as decorate medieval castles. It lost a little of its grandeur over time, and the art world has struggled with where to place tapestry as it shifts from fine art to craft and back again. But textile art it on the up and up, and with artists like Grayson Perry, Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close and Kara Walker incorporating tapestry into their practice in the last few years, I’m predicting a resurgence.
Until that happens though, let’s just enjoy a bit of Erin M Riley’s woollen pornography, eh?