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Art For God's Sake

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.

"Albert met my mother at the Flat Rock Primitive Baptist church in Flat Rock, Tennessee, where she was church organist. A circuit preacher preaches in three or four different churches every Sunday, and doesn't have a lot of spare time. Albert could never get around to oiling his artificial arms, and one Sunday as we drove in to the parking lot of Sand River Baptist, he discovered his hands had frozen in a grip on the steering wheel. He twisted and turned but he couldn't get those hands free. Finally he turned to me and asked, 'Son, do you still have that buck knife I gave you for Christmas?' I said, 'Yeah, Pa.' He said, 'Well, I want you to take that knife, reach up under my robe and CUT THESE WHORISH ARMS A-LOOSE!' I did as he said, and we all three ran into the church late, leaving the two arms dangling from the steering wheel. Albert preached to the congregation that day, armless, helpless, jumping around like some great black predatory bird. At the end, not a single person remained in the pews. They all crowded around wanting to touch Albert, to touch his Passion. From then on, I would follow the armless Reverend Satcher into church holding his artificial arms high over my head. Lives were changed, and I have forever after understood my place. The gallery is my church. I want to dazzle and seduce and pass a little of that Las Vegas religion into the bloodstreams of my congregation."

REVEREND ACRES IS BY FAR THE MOST convincing artist to emerge from the much hyped Las Vegas scene of the last couple of years, and his work is most like that city, with an all-embracing, democratic indiscriminateness and an extravagant visual and theatrical façade that is so purely self-conscious that it achieves a sort of grace. The fact that Acres is a genuine ordained minister through the Church of Universal Life (which sells religious certifications on the Internet), that his weddings are legal and binding, that his sermons are sincere and thoughtful, that he strives to be compassionate and non-judgmental, adhering to the laudable ethical standards of Jesus' teachings, and that he honestly regards his art as a channel for bringing spiritual energy into the profane world, severely blurs easy pigeonholing and dismissal of his project as an ironic performance.

Likewise, the canniness of his artworks and performances, and their inextricability from the context of contemporary mainstream art, defuses the skepticism and prejudice with which the art world habitually regards religious expression. Surfing the wave of separation of church and culture since the Enlightenment, after millennia of indentured servitude the fine arts adopted the absence of theological subject matter as a hallmark of modernity and authenticity. People being the crawling conformist worms that they are, however, it wasn't long before entirely new sets of secular hagiographies were up and running. While this category has evolved to encompass such far-flung concepts as the Sublime, political righteousness and Flatness, religious feeling has had to remain closeted in the ghetto of rural folk art, or sneak in through the amorphous side orifices of surrealist allegory or color-field abstraction. Until now.

If the reintroduction of religious content into mainstream art is the overarching content of Acre's work, specific pieces offer a wealth of individualistic and far less weighty ideas and experiences. The camel piece, for instance, simultaneously references several generally ignored '70s art movements such as feminist appropriation of traditional domestic "craft," Nancy Graves' early sculptural forays into natural-history mimicry (also camels), and the goofy post-pop assemblage known as Funk Art, all on top of the New Testament adage "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven." Poking fun at exactly the sort of content beloved by wealthy art patrons of yore, Acre's work slyly invites contemporary collectors to conspire in the acknowledgment that similar compromises riddle the current scene.

His Mylar roadkill pet portraits are oddly reminiscent of the "spirit photographs" of dead relatives produced by turn-of-the-century mediums to comfort and bilk the bereaved. Their patently Photoshopped slickness and bus-shelter scale and materials, though, tweak the critique toward the millennial tone set by the most riveting contemporary advertising. But where advertising depends on the bait and switch, and on the shipping of mass quantities of mass-produced goods, the Reverend Ethan Acres' work retains the aura of the singular art object.

This, I think, is the key to the Reverend's surprising success -- he renders unto the art world that which it requires, without ill will or false piety. The sincerity and punch of his religious message have been attested to by the community of Swedish Lutheran ministers. And there is a promise to both these antagonistic constituencies that the excluded middle area, disputed through centuries of philosophical animosity, is not beyond redemption; that this once-common ground is, in fact, only a site of conflict from the blinkered perspectives of those who cling to beliefs instead of having enough faith to think for themselves.

SINCE THE CAMEL, THE "LAMB OF GOD," the Mylars and the Highway Chapel were first exhibited at the Patricia Faure Gallery nearly two years ago, life has gotten hectic for the Rev. "There's serious interest in mounting 'A Leap in Pink Taffeta,'" he says "but honestly, I'm booked up till 2002. I'm all set to do a big 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' performance in Soho the week before New Year's, but first I'm touring Latvia, then the rest of Europe, with the new Euro-Highway Chapel. I hope I'll have a bit of free time in L.A., because I'm only doing the one sermon, on July 3." Acres' new show, "Jesus Freak," opens Saturday, May 29, at Patricia Faure and is, if anything, even more cartoonishly apocalyptic than his last. "There's a swarm of locusts covering one wall, and a piece based on Revelations 13:1 -- 'And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and 10 horns, and upon his horns 10 crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.' It's called 'The Devil's Pool Party.' There's a soft sculpture of the lion in the story of Samson, with a wound in its side and a honeycomb inside the wound with a swarm of bees over it. They never say what it's supposed to mean."

As we careen toward the millennium, it's surprising how few instances of mass religious hysteria and group suicides have occurred. It's heartening in a way -- maybe our species has outgrown that sort of thing. Or maybe we're just too isolated to be so organized. Nevertheless, it's remarkable, almost unbelievable, that in a time of desperate escapism, when people's hopes rest in alien abduction or virtual transcendence, that someone can take the overfamiliar elements of two such seemingly exhausted institutions as organized religion and the art world, and combine them into something bigger than the sum of its parts -- something old and new and funny and beautiful and mysterious, with the potential to change lives.

Which is what art and religion should be. God Bless the Reverend Ethan Acres. Hallelujah and amen.


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