Rev. Ethan Acres - The Highway Chapel (1997)

Rev. Ethan Acres at Patricia Faure
Art issues. 1997

Rooted equally in a charismatic religious tradition and a flamboyantly "with it" Popist art vision, the wholly invented but entirely authentic character of Rev. Ethan Acres is hub to an array of objects and actions relating more or less, and more or less promiscuously, to the worlds of art and Christian practice.

In his more conventionally object-oriented art (the sculptures, photographic works, and paintings displayed in the gallery, as opposed to the Highway Chapel trailer parked in front of it, or the services conducted in various venues), the Reverend's pivotal position to his oeuvre allows him to indulge a wide array of formal strategies, from the four horsemen rendered in loose, Pollocky caulking on upholstery vinyl to austere, one-of-a-kind photographic screenprints on clear Mylar depicting dog spirits being shepherded to puppy heaven — and from the spectacularly disturbing spray-foam and assemblage depiction of a seven-eyed Christ/ lamb-go-round (with light and sound effects) to the dark, dwarfish Fiberglas mutation on Michelangelo's Pieta that replaces the Reverend's own likeness for that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To a piece, each station represents an unfixed hybrid of Home Shopping Network Uberkitsch aestheticism, deep art-world savvy, and a seemingly unironic faith in the validity and urgency of Christ's teachings for today's troubled world.

And a troubled, barely pre-apocalyptic world it is that the Reverend surveys, with fire-and-brimstone overtones in his vivid live sermonizing, a reliance on the mother of all apocalypsia, the Book of Revelations, for much of his imagery, and the "get-right-with-God-time-is-runnmg-out" millennial urgency that can drive Web-page designers to mass suicide.

But this is Apocalypse-as-Carnival, replete with clowns, dinosaurs, ride theory, and neon — as much Stephen King as Kingdom Come, that taps a strain of noir American surrealism that is both great candy and bad juju — an almost filmic experience as consuming as it is consumable.

Rev. Acres's work draws from a vast shadow-culture just beneath our contempt, emerging out of a vacuum in official culture that generates unique entertainments such as radio and televangelism, teen folk masses, fundmentalist pop psychology, Jack Chick comics, pro-life rallies, Donald Wildmon, and Christian heavy-metal music.

As novel, funny, exciting, and formally convincing as Acres's artwork is, it is the good Reverend's undeniable charisma and unbreachable outward semblance, pervading every nuance of his public activity, that provides a blanket of credibility and doubt to artworks that might otherwise stand out as contrived, even cynical.

The more environmental, happening, and conceptual aspects of Acres's calling recall Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk , a seldom realized touchstone of performance art theory, while meshing almost imperceptibly into the territory plotted by the Reverend's persona.

Somehow, this oscillating camouflage/shrubbery nexus resolves fundamentalism's fatalistic tendencies into a high and profound entertainment engorged with hedonistic abandon. Yet his refusal of easy caricature, his heartfelt preaching to the homeless of Las Vegas, his seemingly incidental critiques of art and religion (such as one sermon's sly equation of the contemporary art world with that of Protestantism's discarded intercessionary priesthood), and his obstinance in finding meaningful content in the despised canon of Christian iconography betray a sense of complicity and a thoughtful seriousness — a commitment to the reality of his actions that is sorely lacking, if possible at all, in less total art.

Without the presence of the artist, "Lamb of God" resembles a superior group show, with strong formal and thematic connections between the diverse works and the urgency that comes with the reemergence of suppressed psychic material. It is through the objects' role in the larger myth of Rev. Ethan Acres and his ministry that they coalesce and enter a new realm altogether.

In the increasingly pixelated field of contemporary cultural activity, the creation of a conditional zone of autonomous action is one way to circumnavigate the approaching infinite sets of rules that are the fallout of the death of the author. In less gifted hands, such a strategy could result in a sycophantic mishmash of half-baked one-liners — something for everybody, all for none.

In the hands of the Rev. Acres, it results in a blossoming of possibility, a great leap sideways to a newly cleared arena where, for better or worse, the artist is free again to act.

Doug Harvey is the Messiah.