The 1980s were a migraine of hot politics, bad vibes and worse taste. It was the greed-is-good Reagan decade, which coupled the president's buoyant "Morning in America" slogan and Berlin Wall critique with trickle-down economics, union busting and a near-tripling of the national debt. Nuclear weapons proliferated, as did AIDS and HIV. Both spawned national protests. Women clamored for equal pay in big-shouldered suits that somehow trivialized the issue.
With all that baggage, the '80s don't seem a promising era to reprise in art. Yet "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s," now at Walker Art Center, is a smart and unexpectedly absorbing show. With paintings, videos, sculpture and even wallpaper by more than 100 artists, the show surveys sex and gender issues, the AIDS crisis, consumerism and politics through a filter of race, youthful alienation and irony.
Heavy stuff, but really compelling as presented by Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan. Rather than rehash the era's arty-isms, the show is framed thematically. "The end is near" alludes to the expected end of painting, history, the counterculture and modernism. "Gender trouble" examines identity through a feminist lens. "Desire and longing" looks at possessions and fame as measures of self-worth. "Democracy" deals with power -- who has it, how it's exercised, the media's role in it.
Ryan sets up a lively and often poignant dialogue in which objects spark ideas that ricochet through the galleries. For example, a wall papered in red-green-and-blue lettering seems at first to be a recap of the famous LOVE design from the 1960s. But no, the word for the '80s is AIDS, ironically rendered by the Canadian collective General Idea in the same typeface, colors and design.
The redesign suggests that where love in the '60s was bold, sexy, celebratory and free, in the '80s it was tragically doomed. Before it stands Mike and Doug Starn's "Christ (Stretched)," a coffin-like glass case containing a cut-and-tattered photo of a painting of the dead savior, his body sliced and stained. "Christ" seems to signal the death of religion, of painting and of traditional photography.
Consumerism and media culture come into play in the next gallery, whose centerpiece is Jeff Koons' stainless-steel version of an inflatable toy "Rabbit," a seductively cheesy collectible for an age of vacuity. In his "Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) No. 2," Ashley Bickerton uses logos emblazoned on a giant packing case to sum up the era's you-are-what-you-own ethos. The Brazilian artist Jac Leirner offers a bleaker self-portrait in "Lung," a two-year collection of her empty Marlboro packs flattened and looped onto a string.
Artists in this decade also were sensitive to the influence of race, gender, socioeconomic strata and politics. Nan Goldin's 45-minute video "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" offers a candid insider's portrait of gay life that was startling in its day. In his cut-out self-portrait, Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham scribbles onto his naked torso jokes and questions that undermine stereotypical notions of who or what an American man might be today.
Installations by Hans Haacke and David Hammons conclude the show with political punch. Haacke juxtaposes an officious oil portrait of President Ronald Reagan with a huge black-and-white photo of a nuclear war protest in midtown Manhattan. In a billboard-sized 1988 portrait, Hammons, who is black, portrays Jesse Jackson, a two-time presidential candidate, as a white-skinned, blue-eyed blond above the words "How ya like me now?" from a 1987 rap song by Kool Moe Dee. Installed in 1988 above a Washington, D.C., street, the billboard was so incendiary it was attacked by kids with sledgehammers. Now repaired, it is roped off with a semicircle of sledgehammers.