These objects aren’t just superfluous trash, and Brooklyn artist Erin M. Riley’s series of woven artworks (below) deeply explore the lifestyles behind them. “There is so much hidden narrative to the regular objects that are littered in purses, dresser drawers, bathroom cabinets and on coffee tables,” Riley says. “We live with these regular objects every day but we rarely look at them separate from their environment, when isolated they might make the viewer confront details about reality they try to avoid.”
The works in Riley’s Objects series aim to do just that. Far from the objects you’d expect to see in tapestries – fruits, unicorns, hippie insignias – Riley’s works show hyper-realistic vibrators, used condoms, birth control pills, glass pipes, a used tampon dangling from pinched fingers. These objects, when you look at them in your bedroom, are just clutter: but when you remove them from their day-to-day context and look at them, really look at them, they tell stories about the people who use them, and stories about the society in which they are used.
“So much to me about being a woman is about reading directions,” says Riley. “We require a lot of ‘stuff’. Everything that ladies use involve these little packets with warnings and diagrams. As a neurotic lady, I find myself devouring all of the information on tampon boxes, condom wrappers, pregnancy tests. I am hoping to open up people’s eyes to the unseen activities, rituals and implements that so many women use, which might offer conflicting ideas of what a woman’s life is, but will make parts of our lives less traumatic.”
“… if women aren’t masturbating because of the shame behind it, I find that deeply disturbing. In my mind not being in control of your own orgasm might be the root of all misogyny.”
The inherent sexual promiscuity in Riley’s works speaks to a feminine culture in which sexual agency is sexual empowerment. When vibrators, birth control pills and ultrathin condoms are littered among other everyday debris like tampons and ash trays, wanton female desire is normalised, becomes unremarkable. When juxtaposed with the traditionally feminine medium of weaving, these private rituals and taboo objects become political statements.
“Traditionally girls are chaste, respectful and only sexual when a man desires her to be so,” Riley says. “I have been called a slut on multiple occasions for suggesting to female friends that they try masturbating during their long-distance relationship, or relaying that for me [masturbation] relieves stress, helps me sleep, makes my cramps better. I have heard ‘I would rather just sleep with another person than use a toy or my hand’, which is fine, if that is truly your desire. But if women aren’t masturbating because of the shame behind it, I find that deeply disturbing. In my mind not being in control of your own orgasm might be the root of all misogyny. Women are raised with this narrative that if a man gets an erection he will be physically in danger if he doesn’t orgasm, but there is no recourse if a man turns a woman on and doesn’t help her orgasm. So we go through life with this obligation to men that everyone keeps up, and we are constantly being put second.”
Riley’s work further challenges widely-held social expectations about femininity and womanhood with its images of the female body. The women in her tapestries are naked, prostrate, vain, vulgar and pleasure-seeking. They are capturing their own images. They are squeezing their tits together, pointing their phones at the bathroom mirror; they’re unclasping their own bras, smoking bongs on the floor by the bed, wanking by themselves.
“I am interested in… women who don’t censor themselves or hold back from the realities of existing as a woman.”
“I am interested in the lives of women who make their own choices to be the person they want to be, despite any repercussions,” says Riley. “Women who don’t censor themselves or hold back from the realities of existing as a woman.” Her works, taking these private female realities and transposing them into the public space of art, bravely attempt to break down the binarised way society looks at gender. They position women as performers of vulgar acts: they allow for multiple definitions of ‘femininity’, for modes of female existence outside of the spectrum of ladylikeness.
“I don’t think I really have ever felt ‘feminine’,” says Riley, “but I am a girl, so this is my reality. I have dealt with issues of wanting to be coy and sexy while also having an equal say in everything, but I have found that you don’t have to be one or the other, and that especially with your own body anything goes as long as there is consent.”
Using objects that are both taboo and mundane to give voice to pluralised femininities is powerful, but Riley hopes that these identities go deeper than the surfaces her woven selfies portray. “I am super excited that women are appearing unapologetically feminine in their own ways and openly sexual,” she says, “but I hope that this is something that goes deeper into their reality. I am hoping that it isn’t just a facade.”
Thumbnail image: Nudes 17 (2014). Featured image: Another Gateway Drug (2010). All images courtesy of Erin M. Riley.