Artists on Coping: Elizabeth Riley

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Factory Fresh, 2019; Video stills inkjet-printed on paper and fabric, repurposed laser-cut metal, 120 x 108 x 24”

Elizabeth Riley’s art addresses questions concerning the complex and changing world we inhabit and our “mixed reality,” living between physical and digital/virtual contexts. This project includes sculptural wall works, installations, and tabletop cityscapes, made from a combination of video, video stills, and diverse materials. A longtime New Yorker, the artist graduated from Barnard College and received an MFA from Hunter College. In 2019 her work was presented in Ribbons Become Space, a solo show at SL Gallery in New York City. This show included the Dragons of Iceland Installation, a 2011 sculpture/installation with multiple live video elements, as well as, two large-scale, site-specific wall sculptures made from video stills. Elizabeth Riley curated and participated in Trill Matrix at The Clemente Center on New York City’s Lower East Side in 2018, a show of seven dynamic women artists.

AS: How are you coping?

ER: I’m no longer undertaking the daily 45 minute commute on the subway to my studio in Bushwick, and have scoped out temporary studio space in the 4th floor hallway of my underutilized building on the Bowery. It works well to have a space that belongs to me, and the small space feels meaningfully quiet and solitary. There is even a funky hallway skylight. I’ve long recognized that I’m an introvert, which I’ve also long fought against – willing myself to be open to others, and willing myself to venture out and enter into the world – so it feels ironic that in a time in my life when I finally feel tired of the battle with myself to remain open, the world, my state and my city, are telling me to stay indoors and not to go out except for necessities.

The long and short of this is that I’m not so uncomfortable “sheltering-in-place,” though it’s weird when that “what’s next” feeling hits me during the day, and I realize it will be a version of “more of the same,” and in the same place. Despite the strangeness of the emptied streets in the city, and the tragic story this tells, I’ve so enjoyed recent walks in my downtown Manhattan neighborhood. The structure of the city and its architecture is more clearly visible without traffic, pedestrians and street activity, and spring in my neighborhood with white flowering pear trees. It’s good to see that despite the human catastrophe the city is very much here, reassuring, strong, and mostly well maintained, awaiting our return.

Structure from Light, 2019; Video stills inkjet-printed on paper, 105 x 136 x 9″

AS: Has your routine changed?

ER: I was scheduled to be on a residency at the Millay Colony for the month of April. Over the years residencies have been a vital part of my art making process, where I’m productive, and feel able to dig deeper and explore more freely. In mid-March I have been in preparation mode for several months, so that the projects I’d be working on would be in focus at the time of my arrival in upstate New York. The three projects, from large-scale to small, carried through the impulses from last summer’s solo show at SL Gallery.

One of these new projects is a series of small collages made from the same body of orange and yellow inkjet-printed materials that I’d made large, site-specific wall works for the summer show. I make short videos and use videos stills to make three-dimensional work. This new series of collages is a perfect fit for my upstairs hallway studio. When the city started to close, I had in-hand inkjet-printed materials to bring with me to my temporary studio. This new body of work is two-dimensional, which, fortuitously, makes it easier to work on in the hallway studio, without usable wall space and reliant on tabletop LED lights running on battery power. I’m working on an aluminum fold-up table that I purchased originally for the self-made residencies my partner and I undertake in off-season Montauk, settling into a motel room by the ocean. In primary ways my routine hasn’t changed all that much, but I’m fully aware that for many people their lives have been shattered by misfortune.

Temporary Studio 1, March 2020, Inkjet-printed video stills, 13 x 15”

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

ER: This is a horrifying time, as the death toll mounts day by day. I’m worried about the well being of the people I care about, and I feel badly for those I don’t know personally, who must endure a painful illness, and for those we’ve lost. I’m concerned for those who may not get the care they need, because there isn’t enough medical personnel or equipment to go around. I’m angry beyond words at the leadership in the Federal Government that has put our country at further risk through inaction and failure to take responsibility, and proud of other leaders who’ve stepped up to the plate. Going through my day, the more extreme feelings are on the periphery, however. I’m eager for the news, but also block it out when it weighs too heavily. With all this, there are “good” new things too. It’s happy to experience new rhythms and methods of communicating with family and friends.

Temporary Studio 2, March 2020, Inkjet-printed video stills, 14 x 17”

AS: What matters most right now?

ER: I’m concerned to make art that’s meaningful, and this is primary at a moment when life is under threat and askew – an anchor of sorts. My work is continuing in its direction determined before this crisis, and although the questions are built-in, my thoughts are less on the work’s ability to question, than in its ability to sustain. The dominant colors I’m working with are orange and yellow, and these colors are physical and material in the form of inkjet prints, and emblematic of outer light, and inner light – suggestive of another space. These dominant colors are reaffirming to be working with at this extreme time. The video stills printed from my video, The Life of a City, are about the growth of a changing city from primordial beginnings; handling these materials affirms the long term endurance of the city, as my ears seek out, and tune to the sirens outdoors.

Configuring Video, 2019; Video stills inkjet-printed on paper, 78 x 74 x 14″

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

ER: I’m grateful to, and proud of, the people that have been risking their lives helping us make it through the Pandemic, the medical workers, municipal employees, store clerks, and reporters and other members of the media. Concerning the larger picture, the road ahead isn’t envisionable at this point, but I hope it will include needed, plainly obvious, reforms such as a restructuring and improvement of the healthcare system and social safety net programs. I wish the very best for my friends, family, and my urban neighbors. Personally, I’ll continue making art, in good times, and in times that are unimaginable to the everyday “normal.” I’m looking forward to the art of others that will come from this present crisis, being produced now, or out of continuing impacts and lingering reverberations.

It’s telling that a pandemic has been predicted by experts, and manifested in limited episodes, and but very few people, including our present government officials, expected it to reach this global expression and deathly harm. This aligns with the instincts of artists, to uncover or make real something that was previously unlooked at, or beyond the bounds of present human experience.

Paper Dragons, Brooklyn, 2017, Installed for BIGGER BOLDER BETTER exhibition, 470 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn NY, Inkjet-printed video stills formed into shapes and stacked, mini projector, DVD players, 102 x 240 x 240″

All photos courtesy of the artist.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: