Like encounters with the more ravaged precincts of our dysfunctional planet (war zones, snuff flicks, shantytowns), Walker Art Center's new "Abstract Resistance" show ought to come with a warning label: Unsettling Stuff Ahead.

According to curator Yasmil Raymond, the common purpose that unites the 50-some photos, sculptures and installations is their intention "to destabilize the tyranny of comfort." Fair enough. If you're in search of a fuzzy-wuzzy or a play-pretty, look elsewhere.

"Resistance" is an intensely serious, cross-generational show that operates on many levels -- aesthetic, political, psychological, sexual, intellectual, visceral. It spans more than 50 years but is heavily concentrated in the past 20, a troubled time when the chosen artists seem unusually preoccupied with life's, hmmm, difficult passages. You'll encounter sculptures of a castrated kid and a car crash, photos of a kidnap victim, severed heads, blown brains and roadkill (birds, frog, toad), assorted body parts (adobe, mannequin), videos of a guy acting crazy and another poking his finger into facial orifices (eye, ear, nose), and verbal allusions to rape, genital mutilation, racism, class-ism, self-hatred, despair, rage and Eurotrash.

So, is there any fun to be had? Yes. There's an amusing plumpish block about 6 feet tall sponged with lime, coral, hot pink and other metastasizing tropical colors. It sports a Honeywell thermostat like a lapel pin, and it's called "Al Gore." Another big box splashed with pretty peach paint has a color photo of a partially eaten deep-fried dinner and a little rubber chicken on top. Concocted by Rachel Harrison, they -- and another Harrison sculpture involving a bike, a photo of Mel Gibson and some rock-filled purses -- have a fey, pop culture silliness about them that is rather winning. They offer the possibility of a giggle about such serious issues as global warming, yucko fast food and Hollywood-style celebrity.

Fun is neither a necessary nor even, perhaps, a desirable part of art. But finding a bit of it is something of a relief in this otherwise somber exhibit.

Collection on parade

Most of "Abstract Resistance" comes from the Walker's collection, and much of it has not been shown recently, if ever. The title, adapted from an installation by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, is multi-layered. In the first gallery it alludes to the resistance, by some artists, to abstraction as the art world's preferred mode of expression. Raymond neatly sets up the "conflict" between abstraction and representationalism by juxtaposing 1950s and '60s abstractions by Robert Motherwell (collage), Lucio Fontana (slashed canvas, perforated paper) and Anthony Caro (sculpture), with a ribald drawing of a woman by Willem de Kooning, a crashed car re-created in fiberglass by Charles Ray, and Andro Wekua's wax sculpture of a spunky but mutilated child standing before a geometric canvas.

Abstraction's stranglehold on the artistic imagination started to loosen in the 1970s when artists began to mock Jackson Pollock's legendary performances as a "drip" painter. Lynda Benglis poured a remarkable 1971 sculpture that is a real Pollock smackdown. Simultaneously abstract, representational and performative, it's a cascade of tarlike "Adhesive Products" that ripples off the wall like a lava flow or a bizarre sci-fi monster. Likewise, in a video Paul McCarthy grunts and rages like a nut case as he slaps and smears paint onto a phone book and the floor.

Politics moves out of the art world and into the public realm in the second gallery. Here abstract shapes are employed to poke at public pieties. Besides "Al Gore," there's a very interesting collage by Ellsworth Kelly of a green wedge affixed to an aerial photo of Ground Zero, suggesting that instead of an egocentric memorial, a simple green void might best memorialize the 9/11 dead.

Sarah Charlesworth's "Modern History" is fascinating, too, as a reminder of terrorism's long run and the Internet's brief existence. On April 21, 1978, newspapers around the world ran the same grainy, monochrome photo of a weary-looking guy holding a newspaper. He was Aldo Moro, Italy's prime minister, who was kidnapped (and later killed) by the terrorist gang du jour, the Red Brigades. To prove he was still alive, they showed him with a current paper. Charlesworth's prints reproduce 45 of those front pages with everything removed except pictures and mastheads. Her prescient series demonstrates the power of images and anticipates the way the media would be exploited by terrorists and dissidents alike in years to come.

Hirschhorn's installation is a tougher go, a corner room crammed with fetishes (nail-studded logs and tables), abstract designs and photos of severed heads and hideously mutilated bodies. Doctored with garish blood and gore and taped to slabs of cardboard, cutting boards and undulating platforms, these images unfold as a sensationalized landscape of contemporary slaughter. Raymond said the abstractions and fetishes are intended as healing antidotes or exorcisms of the horror.

The third gallery is filled with variations on these themes. Its most potent piece is 52 white boards on which Kara Walker has scrawled stream-of-consciousness diatribes responding to current events -- racial, sexual, political, economic -- with pithy, gut-wrenching candor. Words are, by their nature, abstractions that hold the potential to incite resistance and effect real change. With their ever-shifting perspectives, Walker's words offer a searing coda to the show by evoking mental images in which viewers are at once victim and victimizer, exploited and exploiter. As such, they are implicated in, and responsible for, all that the show lays out.

Mourning and reflection

Artists have always engaged the troubles of their times, often producing shocking images to document horrors and provoke action. Think of the medieval grotesques painted by Hieronymus Bosch, Goya's "Disasters of War" etchings, Géricault's corpse-strewn "Raft of the Medusa" and Picasso's "Guernica," to cite the most obvious. The Walker's "Resistance" artists operate on that terrain, while not necessarily matching those aesthetic achievements.

As she was overseeing the show's installation, Raymond acknowledged its harsh view of the world.

"It's not about making you feel bad," she said. "These works are not doing that. But they take you to a place where there is a certain loss and you know something barbaric is happening. ... I hope it will make us reflect and ask questions about responsibility. It mourns and protests the conditions of the time we are living in. It's not the protest of the banner or the march, but of reflection. I want people to sit and take a moment to think." • 612-673-4431