Peacocks Among The Ruins
Until June 24; Dundee Contemporary Arts

Since it opened in 1999, DCA has played host to a wide variety of exhibitions, but the institution has always seemed most at home with a more presbyterian approach to contemporary art. Visual restraint has been coupled with functionality, minimalism, and a carefully channelled conceptualism. This is no different from many other contemporary art galleries, responding to the prevailing artistic climate.

But that climate is changing. In fine art, colour, gesture and notions of craft are quietly working their way back up the agenda, and in the applied arts, minimal beige has exploded into a riot of big, bold patterns. As part of the Six Cities Design Festival, DCA has embraced this new exuberance like a bookish recluse breaking suddenly into a wild flamenco.

Presiding over this transformation is the Glasgow design duo, Timorous Beasties. The award-winning pair – whose work has been described as “William Morris on acid” – put together a show of wallpapers and textiles inspired by the natural world, reaching back 300 years. But this is chintz with a twist – big flowers and trees and birds may be here in abundance, but so are animal skeletons, mosquitoes and bomber planes.

It’s clear from the moment you walk in that it’s not all going to be blossoms and fragrance. The first room, in twilight gloom, is unexpectedly sinister. A flock of black cut-out crows spans the wall, and on closer inspection, they turn out to be crows of flock wallpaper, the black velveteen surface revealing their floral pattern.

After that it’s a cornucopia of old and new, the modern designs appearing often quite outrageous until you take some time to look at their weird and wonderful ancestors. Timorous Beasties’ own B52 wallpaper sets a substantial geometrical motif of the famous bomber plane against a lavish brown and black floral pattern. The baroque curves of the flowers couldn’t be more opposed to the stark angles of the plane.

Only much later in the show will you happen upon an 18th century French cotton print, The Bombardment Of The Port. As its name suggests, the principal motif is of a French port under fire from a warship, within a decorative floral wreath. A further repeating pattern mixes flowers with military weapons. When you imagine today’s equivalent, an aerial bombardment of Basrah perhaps, you realise that the B52 design is restrained in comparison.

Timorous Beasties are also renowned for their London Toile, a design which looks at first like the rustic fabrics of yore. Pastoral scenes float in foliage-laden islands, pink on a cream ground. But on closer inspection, these lyrical worlds contain a bag lady, local youths drinking on a bench, a mugging, and some not very attractive high-rises.

It’s easy to imagine that this is a straight spoof of the original Toiles de Jouy, with their romantic pastoral scenes and happy shepherdesses in love. But once again there are revelations awaiting towards the end of the show. A roomful of such toiles (including the title piece, The Peacock In The Ruins) includes The Horse Trough, designed around 1792 by Jean-Baptiste Huet.

Made in the same colour scheme as the London Toile, this cotton print conveys a similarly bucolic atmosphere, full of country folk at rest and play. But like the Dutch paintings of a century before, these characters are not always pretty, and not always on their best behaviour. Here, too, are dodgy-looking drinkers on benches, and fights almost ready to break out. A dog is barking at a fat cat, stuck in a tree, and some sort of calamity is taking place with a goat.

Studio Job have contributed several striking objects to the show which combine elegant craftwork with unexpected content. Their Paper Furniture Lamp is an oversized standard lamp, made beautifully from card and paper, and decorated with black mosquitoes and cockroaches. That may not seem like a nice thing to have in your living room, but in fact the 18th century fabrics are crammed with insects of every sort, considered every bit as decorative in their time as flowers and birds.

Modern technologies are much in evidence too, taking the repeat pattern quite literally, and setting it in motion. The patterns on wallpapers and fabrics glide slowly forever upward, reproducing themselves digitally, or they grow and recede as the seasons pass. These mesmerizing designs are for the moment presented as projections, but technology is moving fast, and soon these moving patterns may be embedded inside the fabric.

“What are you afraid of?”, this show seems to ask. Throw out your neutrals and start celebrating the craziness of flora and fauna. If you’re afraid of modern design, its 18th century forebears will calm your nerves. If you’re afraid of being old-fashioned, the modern exuberance will put paid to that. This is the show, to paraphrase a politician, which will kill minimalism stone dead.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 13.05.07