Art For God's Sake 

The Gospel According to Reverend Ethan Acres

Wednesday, May 26 1999
A CAMEL, BASED ON THE PRE-JOE CIGARETTE LOGO, crocheted out of wool and mounted like a painting, unravels to a single long thread that stretches across the gallery to pass through the eye of an oversized needle jutting from the wall. An exquisite larger-than-life Virgin Mary, intricately sewn in beanbag cubism from myriad creamy-white, soft-vinyl panels, sprouts a shiny industrial electrical conduit; connecting at one end to a wall outlet, it passes through Mary's torso à la Robert Gober, to power the X-large red-and-gold lava lamp that is her sacred heart. A fiberglass rocking horse, seething with spray insulation foam and a cluster of glowing pupil-less eyeballs (in an image of "The Lamb of God" lifted from the apocalyptic Book of Revelation), circles the room, suspended inches off the floor by a motorized pivoting arm. Leaning close as it floats past, you hear the faint strains of a Gregorian chant seeping from its head. And everywhere the miraculous oversize photographs on Mylar of the artist himself shepherding the spirits of beloved departed animal friends -- dogs, cats, birds, a beached killer whale, even the long-extinct dinosaurs of the La Brea Tar Pits -- to the celestial shores of pet heaven. Welcome to the world of the Reverend Ethan Acres, the Las Vegas­based artist-preacher whose prodigious and wildly various output has poised him on the brink of international art stardom in spite of the Art World's unspoken rule demanding uniform signature product.

Apart from the arrays of more traditional art media (i.e., sculptures, paintings, photographs and prints), Reverend Acres has refitted a 1965 Shasta trailer as the Highway Chapel, replete with neon-lit undercarriage, stained-glass windows, and an elaborate network of clear tubing circulating arterially hued fluid around the mobile sanctuary before bubbling up into a font near the doorway. He has prepared and delivered sermons for attentive art patrons in Lapland, the famous shop-window prostitutes of Amsterdam's red-light district, and the discombobulated homeless in Sin City. He has performed same-sex marriage ceremonies and conducted weddings in the Nevada "outsider environment" known as Cathedral Canyon. He has spread the word with a newsletter, also entitled The Highway Chapel, complete with recipes for Snickerdoodles and Dump Pie from the drop-dead gorgeous Reverend Mrs. Acres, and sung the praises of Steve Wynn's Bellagio casino in a cover sermon for Art issues magazine. He has developed stage scenarios and lyrics for two autobiographical light operas: A Leap in Pink Taffeta and Power Line, the latter telling the story of his stepfather, Albert Satcher, a Southern Baptist circuit preacher whose arms were seared off when, as a boy of 12, he grabbed a high-voltage powerline on a dare.

"I was just in Sweden as a guest artist, and the students wanted me to organize them in a Passion play," said the Reverend in telephone conversation from his home in Vegas. "There was this one girl who wanted to be Salome, so we worked that in. She had a head of John the Baptist made out of chocolate. I invited all these local Lutheran ministers to attend, and they agreed. A couple of the [student] artists made about 50 Roman-soldier costumes that looked like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and handed them out at the door. But there was this one guy who had been really interested in the fact that I was from Vegas, and in the story of the soldiers casting lots for Christ's clothes. He was really excited, but then he disappeared and I sort of forgot about him until the night of the performance. He shows up dressed as a garden gnome with this giant die made out of Styrofoam, and says, 'I'm ready! I'm ready to do my part!' So I said, 'Okay, at this point you can come in and roll your die.' And so the point comes and we hear this singing 'Dum de dum de dum de . . . ' and this gnome comes dancing in and hurls this huge prop right at everyone at the foot of the cross. The guy playing Jesus had to pull up his feet to not get hit! I was real nervous about what those Lutherans were going to say, but they came up afterward and hugged me and said it was the best thing they'd ever seen! Now they want to work more with the local artists."

One thing that sets Acres apart is the unusual generosity of his work in terms of humor, sensual pleasure, theatrical presence and sheer entertainment. Another is the fact that, far from being a cynical conceit through which he funnels his art, Acres' persona is the site of much of what is most interesting and innovative about it. For while his body of work bears interpretation as a critique (verging into parody) of organized religion (including the cultlike structure of much of the contemporary art world), it is infused with a deep and genuine spirituality that maps out a far more encompassing and less neatly compartmentalized view of the subject than can be summarized by such false objectivity. This newly designated territory, rather than a contemporary artistic view of religion, or the religious view of contemporary art, or the narrow sliver of shared territory between them, is the artist's arena of action. And the stamp that allows him free range of this terrain is the ambiguous pedigree of a Southern Christian upbringing rejected for Art's sake, only to be rediscovered as a font of creative inspiration. Raised to take on his stepfather's mantle and preach in the tent-revival circuit, Acres spent years deeply immersed in Bible study and the uniquely democratic and experientially flavored take on Protestantism that developed in the poor rural South.

  • The Gospel According to Reverend Ethan Acres

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