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Faith Be Not Proud

The colorful Rev. Ethan Acres, a minister and an artist, says the willingness to play the 'holy fool' reflects humility before Christ.

April 17, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Rev. Ethan Acres is a man of the cloth with a taste for fabric so tacky it's more likely to be found in a Halloween costume store than a minister's closet. Not even the gaudiest of televangelists holds a candle to Acres' over-the-top outfits. His latest were revealed on Holy Saturday at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where he presented a sermon and conducted a blessing of the arts and all creative endeavors.

Before an attentive crowd of 80, the robust, 6-foot-4-inch Acres strode across the makeshift stage in a floor-length black robe with a white cross stitched on its front. Breaking into song and citing Bible verses and homey anecdotes in a Southern accent thick as molasses, he exhorted audience members to swallow their pride so that they might find faith in their hearts.

Born in Alabama in 1970, Acres was ordained via the Internet and the World Christianship Ministries in Fresno, Calif. He also holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Art and religion do the same thing," he says. "They are ritualized practices that manifest in the material world what's going on in a person. They make visions physical, transforming abstract ideas into tangible forms."

As a prelude to his sermon in Santa Monica, Acres offered parables and testimony. One anecdote involved him leaping naked from his bed in San Antonio, where he is a visiting artist at the University of Texas, to wrestle a would-be pizza thief to the ground. In the midst of the struggle, he realized how paltry the stakes were and broke into laughter.

He also related a more serious story. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the drunken indiscretions of his stepfather Albert, which caused his mother to leave the paraplegic minister in Tennessee, disillusioned kid in tow. Years later, in the parking lot of a bar in Mississippi, Acres found redemption in the love of his soon-to-be wife Lisa, a blond angel in a leopard-skin jumpsuit who found him asleep in the bed of her El Camino.

The service kicked into high gear when Acres turned his attention to a Japanese sci-fi monster movie he saw on late-night television, on a night off from his part-time job as a Wells Fargo security guard. Made in 1961, "Mothra" is a modern parable about nature's capacity to turn human greed back on itself, often multiplying its destruction.

Japanese Sci-Fi Movie

Recalls Bible Passage

For Acres, the movie recalls 6 Matthew: 19-21, in which the apostle warns his listeners not to store treasures on earth--where moths, rust and thieves can deplete them--but in heaven, "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." But before Acres delivered such a profound message, he reenacted the movie's fantastic plot.

As a tinny tape of generic Japanese music played, he tore off his robe to reveal a multicolored kimono, knee-high athletic socks and spongy rubber sandals, in the thick soles of which were embedded a pair of dolls dressed in even fancier kimonos. They represented the Peanut Princesses, 12-inch-tall women kidnapped from a Polynesian island by an avaricious man from Tokyo.

Acres donned a fake fur helmet complete with bug-eyed goggles fashioned from tea strainers and antennae made of thin copper pipes. Shedding his psychedelic kimono like a cocoon, he became Mothra, the avenging winged creature that descends from the heavens to rescue the princesses and reestablish nature's harmony.

Bare-chested, with a fake fur loincloth and star-spangled, spring-loaded wings made of glitter-covered voile, Acres had the presence of an overweight New Year's cherub, or a hairy, earthbound angel. His homemade superhero costume looked like a poor-man's version of the swan dress Bjork wore to the Academy Awards.

After the sermon, Acres led all who followed into the museum's main gallery, where he blessed the current exhibition, a survey of films and photographs by Valie Export. An Austrian performance artist, she made a spectacle of herself in the 1960s and '70s to provoke people to think more critically about art's place in life.

In the secular and skeptical world of contemporary art, museum curators are charged with the responsibility of "blessing" art. They do so by exhibiting and collecting some works and condemning others to oblivion. Rejecting such external authority, Acres took things into his own hands. As an artist, he believes that it is up to viewers to decide for themselves.

In a telephone interview the following day, he said, "My fight against art institutions is similar to Martin Luther's fight against the church. We just don't need the intercession of specialists, neither priests nor museum bureaucrats, to put us in touch with what we desire--be it God or art."

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