Time edits memories, and not always for the best.

Think of the 1980s and a migraine of hot politics, bad vibes and worse taste rolls through the brain. 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, despite that record, "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, certainly, but really compelling as deftly presented by Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan. He reconfigured the show in Minneapolis following its debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There it was curated by Helen Molesworth, now chief curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, who also prepared the excellent catalog (Yale, $50).

Rather than rehash the era's arty isms, Molesworth framed the show 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.

Smart design; lively ideas

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. Resembling an enormous reliquary, "Christ," seems to signal simultaneously the death of religion, of painting and of traditional photography and its obsession with pristine prints.

Nearby, Robert Colescott's big 1985 painting "At the Bathers Pool (Venus Is Still Venus)" casts a bemused eye on Western (read "white") notions of perfection by depicting black women bathers skeptically, and somewhat resentfully, eyeing a haughty blonde vixen posing in their pool. In "Found Dope: Part II," Candy Jernigan makes a grid-drawing from fragments of 308 crack cocaine vials retrieved from the streets near her New York apartment in 1986. And Martin Puryear brings the decade's troubles to a somber head in his 1980 "Reliquary," a beautifully dovetailed sculpture in the form of a minimalist tombstone.

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. 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.

Politics by another means

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 of 1986, 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. In a critique of stuffed-shirt art and American hubris, 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 (1984, 1988), as a white-skinned, blue-eyed blond above the words "How ya like me now?" from a popular '80s rap song. Installed in 1988 above a street in Washington, D.C., the billboard was so incendiary it was attacked by kids with sledgehammers. Now repaired, it is roped off with a semicircle of sledgehammers.

Like so much in this provocative show, Hammons' piece is still startlingly fresh after all these years. More than two decades later, viewers can't help but wonder if some Americans might like their current president better if he were a blue-eyed white guy rather than the first African-American to hold the office. In this contentious political season, it can be depressing to realize how many 1980s issues are still in dispute, but its heartening to realize that good artists have been doing their bit for a long time. Bravo.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431