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A Preacher's Art of Spreading the Word

The Rev. Ethan Acres isn't afraid to make a spectacle of himself through his work--in fact, it's his calling.

June 08, 1997|Hunter Drohojowska Philp | Hunter Drohojowska Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The Right Rev. Ethan Acres, as he calls himself, looks conspicuous in his powder-blue tuxedo jacket and white ruffled shirt. Standing outside the Patricia Faure Gallery in Santa Monica, where his artwork is on view, he speaks with a Southern accent that makes the president of the United States sound like a Yankee. "I've come to reweave the moral fabric of this sinful city," he announces.

Acres, 25, is a man with two callings--artist and preacher--that are inextricably intertwined. Schooled in contemporary art and recognized by some of today's leading critics, Acres makes work that is all about his faith. At the same time, his religious practices also often can be seen as works of art.

In his exhibition, titled "Lamb of God," paintings, sculpture and computer-enhanced photographic works combine unapologetic references to his Christian beliefs with a sophisticated acknowledgment of Pop and Conceptual art theories. For the run of the show, his mobile chapel, housed in a 1965 Shasta camper, is parked in front of the Bergamot Station gallery, and he will be holding a service at the gallery today at 11 a.m. "All faiths are invited," he says. Throughout the run, outfitted in a neoprene bodysuit with the word "Reverend" stitched on the back, Acres also will be performing baptismal ceremonies in an inflatable swimming pool.

Most of the show is about the Lamb of God theme--for example, there is a life-size mechanical re-creation of the lamb that runs in a circle inside the gallery.

"In the Book of Revelations, Christ is represented as a recently slaughtered lamb with seven eyes and seven horns," Acres says, to explain the work's appearance.

Acres says that, in fact, art is just his "sideline"; religion is his primary calling. Although the show at Patricia Faure is his first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery and he has only been in three group shows, his work already has been praised in Art in America, Art Issues. and Artforum. One critic remarked: "No one knows what to make of him. Everyone wants to think he's being ironic."

Easing himself into a chair in the gallery's office, Acres responds: "I don't intend there to be any irony. But people are going to read irony into it regardless of where I stand on the issue, and that's fine."

He points to a computer-enhanced painting of paradise where, clad in crimson robes, he and his wife both sport clown heads. He cites First Corinthians 4:10: "Paul talks about becoming a fool for Christ's sake. Religious figures would humiliate themselves in public in order to draw a crowd so they could preach the Gospel. Early ministers would rub dung on their faces, which eventually led to the clown's use of face paint. You were showing your love of God by self-humiliation. I tend to make a spectacle of myself through my work. People think it's irony when, in fact, it's just funny."

Religion has been a major feature throughout Acres' unusual journey from his home in the small town of Fort Payne in northeastern Alabama to his current life in Las Vegas, where he lives with his wife Lisa. When he was 4, his mother, Mary Acres, a church organist, married Albert Satcher, a Southern Baptist minister who, at the age of 13, had climbed an electrical pole on a dare and was severely jolted after grabbing a high-tension wire. Near death, Satcher believed he saw the face of God, and though he survived, both his arms were amputated at the elbows and his hair turned white.

As a result of the experience, Satcher became a circuit minister, giving sermons at as many as seven churches on a single Sunday, with his stepson and wife in tow. "Albert led me down the path, and at the age of 10, I was preaching the night services," Acres says.

One Sunday, as the trio drove into the church parking lot, Satcher realized that his artificial arms had locked into place on the car's steering wheel. Acres had to reach under his stepfather's shirt and cut the leather straps, and Satcher ran into the church with Acres behind him, carrying the artificial arms. "The spectacle of his preaching without arms was incredible. Every person in the church went to the front and was saved," recalls Acres. "It was the most amazing religious experience, and for me, as a young boy, it was overpowering."

Afterward, Satcher frequently re-created the spectacle, with Acres holding up the limbs. "That was the point when I started thinking that the spectacle of religion is an overpowering phenomenon," Acres says.

Acres' great-grandfather and grandfather also were ministers, and his grandmother was a snake handler. He preached until he was close to 15, when his mother and Satcher divorced. Three years later, in 1990, he went to college and, as he puts it, "basically, I began to live a life of debauchery and sin in Texas."

At the University of Texas at Austin, Acres immersed himself in a life of drinking and dancing at bars. "It was a lifestyle I'd never had, sort of 'country comes to town,' " he explains.

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