x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

From blank wall to blank canvas

A show in Manchester provides evidence that artists are turning increasingly to the medium of wallpaper.

The recent transformation of the humble roll of wallpaper into the must-have decoration for cool homes, clubs, shops and hotels has been well documented. Stuffy and safe designs from a bygone age have been replaced by geometric designs and fashionable flocks. So it's perhaps not a surprise that cutting-edge artists have begun to harness the potential of the medium for their own ends. The results, as a new exhibition in the UK investigates in some style, are not only impressive, they also immediately make the viewer reassess that blank wall at home.

But is this is a new development? Hidden halfway around Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture at Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery is an Andy Warhol design that suggests that some modern artists, at least, have always been intrigued by wallpaper. His first-ever effort, Cow (1966), hangs in two drops, a brightly coloured motif inspired by an animal on a milk carton. Of course, Warhol was obsessed with replicated Coke bottles and soup cans, so his repetitive style was a perfect fit.

But this was a singular artistic statement rather than a design for a wallpaper company to mass produce. And the fascinating subtext to Walls Are Talking is how our attitudes to what we might like on our walls has changed. There is work from the Glasgow design studio Timorous Beasties, the most memorable being a beautiful toile filled with what appear to be classic, Victorian scenes: images of London's Tower Bridge immediately stand out. Only on close inspection do new buildings, such as the skyscraper dubbed the Gherkin, reveal themselves. And the people inhabiting these scenes aren't dressed in top hats and plus fours; they are instead down-and-outs, muggers and city workers. It's brilliant - and you can buy rolls of it today from the Timorous Beasties website.

The idea behind Timorous Beasties' work - that a medium usually seen as safe and comforting can be very subtly subverted by artists - is one that appears again and again in Walls Are Talking. And often it's to make political statements that perhaps wouldn't have so much power in a straight, one-off canvas. This isn't a new idea: the Victorians used to believe that wallpaper designs in the home could have a moral influence on children. And Francesco Simeti's Arabian Nights (2003) appears to be full of the kind of Romantic Victorian scenes that would line rooms in English stately homes. Naturally, there's a twist: these sketches are actually images from Afghanistan. Weapons, rubble and explosions are concealed, at first, by how aesthetically pleasing it all looks. But even the border around the wallpaper is filled with refugees grimly marching to a safe haven.

Elsewhere, Niki De Saint Phalle's brilliantly vibrant, cartoonish design, with its dismembered black and green bodies, seethes with anger at the pressure on women to conform to the usual notions of beauty and motherhood. It transpires that the German wallcovering company Marburg commissioned artists such as De Saint Phalle to update their somewhat fusty image, and now they've become one of Europe's top names in the field.

Of course, there is plenty that delights (or indeed disgusts) but would never make it onto a wall - unless the owner of that wall was perhaps slightly psychopathic. Turn the corner from a rather beautiful ivy-coloured pattern (which was very popular in the early 20th century) and there's a roll that appears to be randomly splattered by fluid. A mistake? Not a bit of it. Abigail Lane's Bloody Wallpaper reproduces a pattern of marks depicted in the photo of a murder victim. This is clever stuff; the repetition might shock, but it could also be read as a comment on our desensitisation to violence.

The presence of work by Damien Hirst and David Shrigley, too, proves that more and more artists are finding wallpaper a thrilling canvas. Throughout the exhibition, there are patterns (some commercially available, others not) that might previously have been considered inappropriate for domestic decoration. Now, they have not only crossed over into the home but they also make genuinely interesting statements on 21st-century life.

And to prove all this, at the end of Walls Are Talking a space is covered with Chris Taylor and Craig Wood's Blank Cheque (2010), which the gallery commissioned for the exhibition. The design is highly topical: a repeating blank cheque symbolises the ineptitude of the financial markets and suggests that future generations might pay for the shortsightedness of our present world. It has been manufactured by none other than Graham & Brown, one of the biggest wallpaper companies in the world, which sells some of the duo's other designs. It's also available from the gallery shop.

We've come a long, long way from innocent floral wallpaper by Laura Ashley. Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture runs at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until May 3. Timorous Beasties designs are available at www.timorousbeasties.com