From its opening salvo, Walker Art Center’s provocative new show of art from its collection strikes a deeply patriotic chord that echoes and re-echoes as the display unfolds.

Appropriately, the patriotism of “Less Than One” is complex, questioning and as inclusive as the United States itself. It has none of the jingoistic, exclusionary nationalism so common in the political rhetoric of the moment. Instead, it embraces challenging ideas and such core American values as honesty and candor. It is, at heart, an expansive display of “e pluribus unum” patriotism.

It features just 16 artists whose visuals, voices and ideas delve into perennial hot-button topics ranging from race, ethnicity and sexuality to troubling episodes in the country’s recent history including the 9/11 tragedy and the depravity of Abu Ghraib. Incorporating paintings, sculpture, videos and elaborate installations, the show runs through Dec. 31.

Some of the content is unquestionably tough, and the implied psychological and political issues are especially charged in an election year. At the same time, there is real beauty in the lush color and sharp graphic design of many pieces. And, to an unusual extent, the contemporary work ties into the history of art as far back as ancient Egypt and the European renaissance.

Sixty years of talent

Selecting from the Walker’s 10,000-piece collection, artistic director Fionn Meade focused on pivotal artists of the past 60 years, predominantly Americans, and arranged their work as a dialogue with younger talents.

At the entrance hangs Jasper Johns’ classic 1965 painting of two American flags, stacked one above the other and rendered in colors that seem at first a desecration — or a mystery. The stripes in the top flag are green and black, while its dark stars hover in a field of orange. The flag below is all in shades of gray. In his typically Delphic way, Johns makes the viewer work to see what he’s up to.

Here’s the trick: First stare intently at the tiny white dot in the middle of the colorful top flag. Then gaze at the white dot at the center of the gray flag. After a moment the gray flag will likely appear as a red, white and blue mirage. Beyond the perceptual game, Johns metaphorically suggests that the United States is not a singular entity reducible to a lapel pin cliché, but an elusive, multihued concept open to interpretation.

Across the way, paintings by black performance artist William Pope.L mock skin-color obsessions with clever wordplay about “orange people,” “blue people” and so on.

Nearby, conceptualist Adrian Piper raises related questions in her “Mythic Being” photos and performance videos from the 1970s in which she convincingly transformed herself into a person of ambiguous race, sex, social class and politics. Disguised in an Afro wig, mustache and mirrored glasses, she appears to be a black radical; removing them strips away her “mythic” status.

Elsewhere, reclusive Lutz Bacher adopted the persona of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for an autobiographical 1976 interview. Though some of the pieces are now more than 40 years old, the provocative art of Pope.L, Piper and Bacher seems startlingly prescient in foreshadowing present-day identity obsessions.

Video drama

Like a deftly staged theatrical spectacle, the show’s narrative arc peaks in the second gallery. It opens with a dreamy video of roiling, sea-foam clouds by Trisha Donnelly, who later reprises the clouds in a lush video portrait of Donatello’s bronze statue of “David,” the most seductively androgenous male nude of the 15th century.

The mood quickly darkens in Paul Chan’s sheet-music scores whose ragged black “notes” recall the soot and ash that blanketed New York City — and the nation’s psyche — after the Sept. 11 attacks. His unsettling video “Sade for Sade’s Sake” uses silhouettes of human bodies and body parts to re-enact the sexual depravities of the Marquis de Sade and the brutalities perpetrated by Americans at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. By projecting the five-hour, 45-minute video onto walls stacked with Ghraib-style warehouse debris and littered with (toy) guns, Chan compels viewers to confront a particularly horrific episode of unresolved history.

Videos, installations and drawings by Trisha Brown, Renée Green, Joan Jonas and Meredith Monk document iconoclastic art of the past half-century, including novel performances in vacant lots and even on Loring Pond. In a poetic installation, Green mashes together excerpts from the writings of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, W.E.B. Dubois and others to critique New England’s role as a fount of American ideals.

Enigmatic melancholy

The show’s enigmatic title, “Less Than One,” alludes to an essay by exiled Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, who in 1991 became the first immigrant to be named the nation’s poet laureate. With irony, resignation and bitter humor, Brodsky mourns his beloved homeland as a misguided place where outcast intellectuals found their only comfort in language and art despite “uncertainties” and self-doubt that left them personally unfinished, incomplete and “less than one.”

Something of Brodsky’s melancholy permeates the show, especially in its many nods to history. Both Donnelly and Kara Walker sculpt modern sphinxes. Donnelly made two with headlamps strapped over their faces as if blind but still trying to illuminate the future. Walker’s is a bronze maquette of a hyper-sexualized beast with an Aunt Jemima face and turban, a cartoonish version of black female stereotypes that’s intentionally affronting in the otherwise politically correct environment of a contemporary art museum. Her wall silhouettes elaborate on such stereotypes while incorporating references to Picasso, Brancusi and other giants of 20th-century art.

A gallery-sized 1983 film installation, “You the Better” by Ericka Beckman, concludes the show. In it, colorfully costumed athletes engage in a frantic ballgame that becomes increasingly oppressive as the players transform into pinball figures trapped in a rigged game.

For a more poetic wrap-up, look to Sigmar Polke’s magnificent “Frau Herbst und ihre zewi Töchter (Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters)” in the adjacent gallery. One of the Walker’s most hauntingly beautiful images, it is a cross-cultural elegy to art and life in which three Victorian-era women — the fates, perhaps — perch on a snowdrift in a translucent Chinese cloudscape and cast snowflakes onto a landscape through which two weary travelers trudge into the distance.

A mere verse from the Walker’s vast collection, “Less Than One” melds the images and voices of artists — black and white, gay and straight, then and now — into the larger chorus of American culture. It’s not the whole opera, but it’s a bravura performance.

 

Twitter: @maryabbe