The humble doily, beloved of the Victorians, is transformed in the subversive, satirical art of Simon Periton
After a year-long tour of the English provinces, the exhibition Secret Victorians opens in Los Angeles this week. The show offers contemporary reworkings of themes from that incredible era of decorative handicrafts and ornamentation. Among the calligraphy, floral decoration, wallpaper and fabric design, one man's work has been attracting the most attention, Simon Periton's extraordinary paper doilies.

Though a piece by Periton has been commissioned for the Hayward Gallery, the notion of a "provincial tour" somehow still seems the most apposite. The doily is after all the dernier cri of silver-service waitering in imposing station hotels up and down the country. In Periton's hands, these intricate exercises in a pointless decorative art explode into original and subversive pieces, replete with art historical references and motifs of contemporary culture, often with a satirical edge. Periton exposes, for example, the paper-thin, transient attitudes many of us have towards racism and human rights issues. He subverts the emblems and insignia of the military: the camouflage of army fatigues never looked so beguiling.

Periton has a broad artistic background. Before going to St Martins in London, ostensibly for a film-making course, he was a photographer. He became enthusiastic about disposable sculpture, producing "space-agey minimal collages, blobby arabesque things made out of wood, and wicker, vinyl fabric things". The debts to film-making are still evident, perhaps best of all in his reworkings of the "target" insignia of Archer Films, the production company of the groundbreaking Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And it is in the end perhaps the most telling allegiance, for director Powell attempted to rediscover at the height of the Second World War a lost harmony in the beauty of the British Isles, in the ordinariness of its rural inhabitants and their dying crafts.

Perhaps, in a week that brings us Charles Saatchi's exhibition, New Neurotic Realism Part II, Periton isn't a Secret Victorian after all but the contemporary manifestation of English Neo-Romanticism. Or perhaps the singular work of Simon Periton defies classification, much like the medium he chooses, for the moment, to work in.

Simon Periton's piece, `Barroquade', is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) from 20 September to 10 October. `Secret Victorians' is at UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles from 20 September to 2 January 2000.

Deconstructing the doily

Periton's points of reference are varied: the applied art of Christopher Dresser, the proto-decadence of Aubrey Beardsley, the patterns of Islamic decoration and emblems from the punk era. Periton was present at the tail end of punk. He worked for a while at Better Badges where the graphic, decorative aspect of the movement, its sloganeering and appropriation of ideas found expression. In his doilies, he turns the repeated motifs of the contemporary political gesture, such as the anarchist's encircled "A" (above, top) into bulbous, unexpectedly decorative entities. The doily, he says, "contextualises the trivial and the banal. That's what fascinates me." His art works should remain "doilies", he says, and not be called "paper cut-outs" because the former, says Periton with disarming restraint, "are more than slightly annoying".