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Many art world insiders take a negative view of the visual arts of the 1980s, linking the most high-profile work of the time to the decade’s political conservatism. The musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson described the decade thus: “Good for military spending/Bad for social activism/Good for very big paintings/Bad for my neighborhood.”

The enormous, neo-expressionist canvases, largely American, German and Italian, that Anderson refers to hailed a return to figuration after the conceptualism of the 1970s, and private and corporate collections bought vast quantities. Also dominant was the slick work of controversial figures such as Jeff Koons, which some argue merely exploited the new commercial thirst for contemporary art. On this view, the buoyant art market was everything. There was no underground, no avant-garde to further contemporary art’s development.

The 1980s: A Topology at the Serralves Museum in Porto goes some way to correcting this perception of the 1980s as an artistic dead end. Its organisers claim it is the largest show yet to deal with the decade, and indeed it is enormous. But you won’t find any of Koons’ works here. Instead, the show’s curator Ulrich Loock has chosen often maverick artists who, he says, make a “painful and disturbing uncertainty” their terrain.

Accordingly, the exhibition is wildly varied in terms of media and imagery. The conjunction in the hall outside the exhibition of Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays – texts on Day-Glo coloured posters that confront the viewer with a blizzard of statements and instructions – and Niek Kemps’s 8m-high rectangular block covered in luxurious, red velvet prepares the viewer for such eclecticism.

The sometimes jarring, often exhilarating, juxtapositions are a result of Loock’s decision to organise the exhibition by geographical area. One gallery has some of the few British artists on view – Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Richard Wentworth – alongside other northern European artists such as the Dutch painter René Daniëls.

In spite of the artists’ differing approaches the gallery is among the best in the show, because the works are given sufficient space to breathe and to interact. Deacon’s “Art for Other People”, a series of intimately scaled mixed media sculptures, has a lyrical feel and Wentworth’s light touch and understated wit is evident in two sculptures and his photographs “Making Do and Getting By”, where he finds art, perhaps even beauty, in the daily improvisations of Londoners – a velvet cushion shoved into a jagged hole in a window pane, for instance. Only the deliberately naïve figuration of Daniëls’ “Mr Noordzee” suffers in this space; its consciously poor drawing and brash colours represent an aspect of 1980s art that the exhibition otherwise avoids.

Interspersed among the large, grouped gatherings in the labyrinthine space are smaller displays of individual artists. These provide some of the exhibition’s highlights, as well as a pause from the visual cacophony of some rooms. Best of all is a room featuring one of the poetic and subtly brutal sculptures with which the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo has drawn attention to the disappeared of her native country. Their absence in her untitled sculpture here is represented by piles of folded white shirts set in plaster and pierced by iron spikes rooted on the floor.

Given the US’s high profile in 1980s art, the section devoted to the country here is among the exhibition’s most intriguing elements. Much of the work is a conscious antithesis of the perceived corporateness of the high-profile artists in the New York scene, and there is a deliberate poverty in the materials used.

Raymond Pettibon’s videos, in which young West Coast Americans are filmed by wobbly handheld cameras as they speak gobbledegook, and his hilarious comics on photocopied paper are as removed from commodity as you can get. The same goes for his colleague Mike Kelley’s often lewd doodles on lined paper. The native American Jimmie Durham’s sculptures, which use everything from pieces of wood to a steering wheel to form figures topped with animal skulls, are some of the most enjoyable pieces in the show.

Throughout the exhibition, the experimental and informal qualities of the works on show make it feel unlike a show of art from the past. The dominance of found materials, edgy photography, ironic painting and text-based pieces reminded me of works being made by artists emerging today, although some pieces are clearly dated due to their inferior technology. This does not mean that this exhausting but often enthralling exhibition is uniform in quality, but it at least succeeds in proposing a view of the decade that is at odds with the received wisdom.

‘The 1980s: A Topology’ is at Museu de Serralves, Porto, until March 25, tel +351 226 156 500, www.serralves.pt

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