Were the past 50 years really a period of endless dissolution and anomie, fragmentation and fracture, repression, angst and bad housekeeping, all lived under the specter of a mushroom cloud of atomic dust? Are a beggar's hand, a sighing mirror and prayers in an unfamiliar script the best we can cough up to mitigate the pervasive gloom of recent decades?


Would that it were otherwise, but "Event Horizon," Walker Art Center's three-gallery sample of topical and personal art from its collection -- films, videos, photos, installations, paintings, sculpture, collages -- is really heavy weather. And it's going to be up for nearly three years. True, there will be changes along the way. Films and videos will be switched periodically. Performances will be injected, and paintings and photos may change, too. But it's difficult to imagine a significant alteration to the pervasive mood, which is glum, somber, bleak. Every gallery has dismembered body parts dangling somewhere, social ills and issues simmer throughout and the third gallery's bright spots -- clearly intended as injections of hope and benediction -- are too little, too late.

Reinstalling a museum's collection is an intellectually and aesthetically demanding balancing act in which curators attempt to lay out a cultural narrative using a small subset of the available art. Because the Walker owns more than 12,000 works in various fields, and the collection galleries can hold only 200 or so, tough choices must be made. Chief curator Darsie Alexander, who joined the Walker's staff a year ago, decided on broad themes that allow maximum flexibility. "Event Horizon" deploys about 100 works in various media. Its companion show, "Benches and Binoculars," features nearly 100 figurative and abstract paintings stacked floor-to-ceiling in a free-associative melange.

The title comes from physics and astronomy, where, loosely speaking, "event horizon" refers to perceptual shifts in space and time as objects approach black holes. It's sometimes thought of as the point where a black hole seems to gobble up everything that reaches it -- dust, meteors, even light itself. Metaphorically, it might be imagined as the end of the known universe, the spot on ancient maps where ships toppled off the edge of the Earth. For the Walker's purposes it's a classy play on words that lends a patina of scientific sophistication.

Psychology vs. chronology

While historic events are alluded to, the display downplays chronology in favor of psychological continuity between past and present.

Human fragility and vulnerability are dominant motifs in the first gallery. It opens with an enormous Andreas Gursky photo of a 1999 prize fight in which thousands of spectators mill about in a vast stadium, anonymous witnesses to commercialized brutality. Several works from the 1960s amplify that undercurrent of violence: Andy Warhol's poignant "Sixteen Jackies," which contrasts 1963 news images of the First Lady as glamorous celebrant and stricken widow; a 1964 Niki de Saint Phalle canvas whose colors explode from pigment-filled balloons shot by the artist; Robert Indiana's iconic Pop diptych emblazoned with the words "Eat" and "Die."

Nearby hang Raymond Hains' 1959-60 slab of scabrous metal alluding to France's imperialist war in Algeria and a nail-studded 1964 construction by Günther Uecker. An installation by Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo uses pustulant body parts (props recycled from a film set) to memorialize the slaughter by Palestinians of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. That endless imbroglio is in turn echoed in a 2005 photo by Minnesotan Paul Shambroom of a Toyota exploded, as a training test, by American antiterror forces.

The bomb dominates gallery two, where Bruce Conner's mesmerizing 1976 film "Crossroads" is shown continuously in a temporary theater. Collaged from government clips, it documents a test explosion in which a Pacific island was vaporized by a nuclear bomb. Elsewhere in the gallery, artists seem to be struggling to hold onto normal life or to reassert the relevance of art. In 1999, Jeff Wall photographed a cleaner at work in the pristine precincts of Barcelona's Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Jasper Johns attached a worn broom to a 1962 painting and the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss carefully hand-crafted trompe l'oeil replicas of mundane objects (paint cans, orange peels, tape) and stashed them under the gallery stairs.

On a tragicomic note, the late British artist Angus Fairhurst acts out rageful frustrations in a video while wearing an ape costume, a photo series records a 1965/66 mutilation performance by Rudolf Schwarzkogler that's purportedly about Austrian repression and an installation-with-video documents an AIDS-inspired performance by the late Ron Vawter.

The third and final gallery is the most diffuse, alternately emotionally repressed and yearning for transcendence.

An alcove of Joseph Cornell collages (framed, boxed, filmed) injects poetic fantasy, a wedding picture on a stack of faux newspapers by Robert Gober recalls limits on gay rights and Kara Walker injects black history into Civil War lithographs. Some vacuous recent Walker purchases show up here, notably a sprawling particleboard "Plateau," by Manfred Pernice of Berlin and an abstract collage by Mark Bradford of Los Angeles. A lyrical light-and-shadow video by Paul Chan is meant to evoke the world's creation, and Minnesotan Todd Norsten ironically calls for "Ceaseless Boundless Endless Joy" by sadly painting those words in trompe l'oeil masking tape. Prayers handwritten in Persian by Siah Armajani and a motorized mirror that breathes and sighs, by Olafur Eliasson, seem intentionally poignant, as does a purple "beggar's hand" and a green umbrella sculpted by Katharina Fritsch. Their healing balm is welcome, albeit slight.

As a sample of the Walker's multifaceted collection, "Event Horizon" succeeds in exposing a lot of important talents, embracing diverse media and airing a slew of topical issues. But it often feels preachy, disjointed and obligatory. For decades, the Walker's mantra, like that of many contemporary art institutions, has been that contemporary art breaks down the barriers between life and art. If so, it's a gloomy and dispiriting job.

The past half-century has been a traumatic time, fraught with assassinations, wars, economic turmoil, ethnic tension, repression and resurgent barbarity. Artists are to be commended for facing the issues boldly and not retreating into aesthetic ivory towers. So too is the Walker, which has long championed the new, the young and the confrontational. But life -- and art -- are more than just the sum of daily troubles. It's the "more" that's in short supply here.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431