Textiles and fabrics of one kind or another have figured prominently in Nick Relph’s recent output, roughly since he and his long-time collaborator Oliver Payne decided to go it alone in 2010. Included in Bice Curiger’s 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, Relph’s film Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field (2010) superimposes three separate documentary strands dealing with the history of tartan, the artist Ellsworth Kelly and the Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons. Red, green and blue – which connect the piece’s three strands – were virtually absent from the new body of work displayed at Chisenhale Gallery, Relph’s first solo exhibition in a public institution. A surprising move for the still-young artist, who made his name by making lo-fi pop-cultural videos with Payne, ‘Tomorrow There Is No Recording’ comprised 16 large-scale works that fall into three different types: photographs, textile weaves stretched out on canvas and a digital print on cotton. All were the same size (122x76 cm) and hung at the same height, imparting a certain uniformity to this formally spare show.
All but two of the framed photographic works were neatly lined on one side of the foyer, hung over the show’s title and credits in such a way as to partly hide them from view in a gesture of rebellion or denial, as well as foregrounding the act of layering at the heart of the show. Blown-up and closely cropped, these abstracted digital prints, reproductions of 35mm film and slides, capture fragments of domestic spaces and objects, such as a gnarled, leafless bonsai tree in an ornate Japanese pot in (What Are) The Means of Coming Back? (all works 2013) or the edge of a basin, a glass surface streaked with water and a bowl in Responds to the Name, the latter of which illustrates Relph’s overlapping interests in naming and wordplay.
The remaining two c-type prints were displayed in the gallery, as points of contrast to the weaves dominating the space. Paired with the plain grey rayon Very City, an enigmatic image of the broken window of an audio-visual shop – titled Past Ten Past Ten and taken with an iPhone – made up a diptych of sorts. The time and effort expended on weaving a fabric were implicitly contrasted with the time and effort required to take a snapshot. On the contiguous wall, Water on the Lip pictured a patterned bus seat fabric, slashed across, besides the Kodak logo displayed against a laptop screen acting as a light box, standing for analogue processes such as chromogenic printing.
The textile weaves were handmade by the artist with a four-harness floor loom that he taught himself to use at a weavers’ association. Despite this, Relph is less interested, apparently, in their referencing craft than in them as pictures. For the same reason, he makes no distinction between natural and synthetic fabrics, shuttling democratically between cotton, silk, linen, rayon, nylon, monofilament, Lycra and Antara. Yet even when stretched out on canvas and hung up on a gallery wall, each fabric hints at its habitual uses as apparel, furnishings and upholstery items.
With their pale, drab and blunted colours that came in a range of subtle hues – from burnt sienna in Beginning King to dusky lilac in Mondegreen – livened up, here and there, by the use of copper tape or some other glittering thread, the textile weaves in the gallery could at first be somewhat underwhelming, dwarfed by the space, for all their large scale. But they repaid close attention. Each deployed its own vocabulary of warp and weft, of horizontal, vertical and diagonal patterns. What from afar could be mistaken for a monochrome painting, seen up-close revealed hidden layers of texture and colour, as well as fault lines, glitches and flaws replete with information about the process of their making. Weaving has the appeal of a more labour-intensive way of working than anything the artist has hitherto attempted.