Be sure to pause at the entrance to "Midnight Party," Walker Art Center's enchanting new exhibit, to watch the brief film from which the show's title comes. Confected by hermetic American surrealist Joseph Cornell, the 1938 film is a four-minute fantasy comprising snippets from early silent movies. Charmingly innocent, it features all sorts of improbable encounters, dreadful dangers and magical escapes for a little ballerina and a prepubescent Lady Godiva around whom birds flap, flames flutter, tunnels loom and Zeus hurls thunderbolts. Nothing bad happens to the girls, of course, because they're in a dreamworld where "mystery trumps logic," as a text panel explains.
Like the film, the exhibit unfolds as a stream of fanciful images and objects -- paintings, drawings, films, sculptures, photos -- that tap those deep psychological undercurrents rippling through the somnambulant mind. Most come from the Walker's collection, including many pieces by new artists, and treasures (by Louise Nevelson, Jean Arp, Lee Bontecou, Kay Sage and more) that haven't been shown for years. Curator Joan Rothfuss has smartly added loans from other museums and private collections, including a stellar gallery of early-20th-century prints by Edvard Munch, Paul Klee, Odilon Redon, Ernst Kirchner and others.
Deftly installed, the show uses cinematic techniques -- subtle shifts of scale and mood, light and dark, enclosure and expansion -- to enhance the effect of the art. Add the maze-like layout of the galleries, the mysterious sounds and twinkling nickelodeon music from films that run continuously, and "Midnight Party" casts a mesmerizing spell.
For decades the Walker has built film booths into its exhibitions, but they've never been so integral or inviting as they are in this show, nor have previous exhibitions tapped such a rich vein of the museum's renowned film collection. The most astonishing is "Le Voyage dans la Lune," a 1902 short (yes, 1902!) by George Méliès in which top-hatted Victorians squeeze themselves into a tin-can spaceship and blast off to a blue-cheese moon that melts, a la Salvador Dali, while Gibson Girl rockettes dance in short shorts. You can't make this stuff up. But be sure to see it soon, because while the show will continue for the next three years, the films will change every few months.
So how does all this hold together through three galleries? Beautifully. A dreamy darkness suffuses the first gallery. There stand five of Nevelson's elegant black totems from the 1960s, looking like abstracted African fetishes. Bontecou's fierce wall sculpture, a razor-toothed maw of stained canvas and grommet holes, hangs near a sketchy Susan Rothenberg painting of insect-like black figures suffused with a lemony Martian glow.
Around the corner is an incredibly elegant 1956 black-on-black painting by Jimmy Ernst, whose better-known father, Max Ernst, was one of the original Surrealists. A faceted, modernist landscape that suggests perhaps communication towers or surveillance equipment, Ernst's painting is a rarely shown gem. Beside it, Sage's enigmatic abstraction of a hooded figure recalls the haunting marble mourners on medieval tombs (a set of which are now on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). And Robert Mallary's 1962 "Parachutist" sculpture, consisting of a stiffened tuxedo falling below a broken umbrella, is a comic nightmare. Plus, there's much more by Joan Miro, De Kooning, Bruce Conner, Carter Mull and myriad others.
In true dream-party fashion, there's also a diversion in the first gallery. It's a little deep-green room, decorated with a chandelier and a cushy boudoir-pink sofa, on the walls of which hang an amazing collection of color photos by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a marginally employed Milwaukee baker who amused himself for decades snapping pictures of his wife in fanciful get-ups ranging from leopard spots to Tahitian princess skirts and Hollywood cheesecake poses.
The second gallery plays with the architecture of dreams -- those mysterious rooms that unfold in endless sequences, so familiar and yet unknown. After a bright interlude of comic imagery and psychedelia by Chris Ofili (of dung-ball fame), Frank Gaard of Minneapolis, Chicagoan Ed Paschke and others, there's an ell of melting and distorted bodies (Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Thomas Schütte). A darkened alcove holds a dozen early-20th-century woodcuts and lithographs, all portraits and self-portraits that depict the subjects' tortured psyches rather than their physical likeness. Strange materials are on view around the corner: David Goldes' photo of liquids spattering into various vessels and Mircea Cantor's mirror-like sculpture of a Stetson filled with used motor oil. (Don't get too close to that one; the guards go ballistic.)
The scale shifts of dreamland continue with a Hannah Collins mural-sized photo of enormous ants; Tom Rose's dollhouse-sized room made of porcelain and Thomas Demand's huge photo of a cell-like barn interior. A surrealist sculpture by Nari Ward -- it looks like an abstract dog with claw-footed, table-leg paws -- rolls on the floor near a Richard Artschwager brush-sculpture tucked under the steps like an errant tumbleweed.
Gallery Three seems at first to peter out in a claustrophobic all-white cul de sac lined with huge abstract paintings. But then, in true dream-fashion, an escape route opens through a mysterious Wunderkammer, a huge darkened chamber filled with bizarre faux-aboriginal sculptures, brightly lit cases of amazing exotica and a film booth. There are over-the-top wonders crammed in here, but watch especially for Paul Thek's slab of "Hippopotamus" flesh and two sexy "landscape" sculptures by Charles Simonds that prefigure by 20 years Robert Gober's hermaphroditic chest-in-a-box (shown nearby). Extra credit if you spy Ed Kienholz's hilariously sly LOL pornography.
That all this is watched over by a somber bronze bust of the museum's namesake, T.B. Walker, is a hoot. By the time you exit past Jana Sterbak's "Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic" -- a dress made of raw flank steak -- nothing will surprise you. Sweet dreams.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431