These days, "art" and "organized religion" seem out of sync with each other and out of vogue as a philosophical pair, at least in contemporary American art culture. A majority of postmodern artists claim atheism, agnosticism and various veins of blended spirituality as forms of individual "anti-religion." Fundamentalist Christianity, especially, finds itself at odds with a predominantly liberal-based art community. But these common divisions aren't without exception.
Ethan Acres, a performing artist and ordained Christian pastor, sees his dual calling as a chance to "put the fun back in fundamentalism." Acres is scheduled to share his drama and ideas in the Spokane area on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Acres was invited by a regional consortium that consists of Eastern Washington University, Spokane Falls Community College and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, or MAC (formerly known as Cheney Cowles Museum), through the Visiting Artist Lecture Series. Entitled "Articles of Faith, Acts of Inquiry," the 2000-2001 series is dedicated to examining the role of faith and religion in contemporary culture and the complex intersection between religion and rituals.
"We've brought in artists of international and national renown," says Lanny De Vuono, chair of the art department at Eastern, "artists who otherwise wouldn't come to our community to talk about their work. This year we're focusing on the power of religious practice in art and how, in our very hurried contemporary life, that often gets ignored. We're curious about artists who make work motivated by spiritual belief. We want to know who is being motivated by religious belief and making art that speaks through that while still having a larger, public resonance."
Acres, who seems to foot the bill on all thematic accounts, is the second visiting artist in this year's series. He was preceded by Jose Bedia of Cuba — a devout practitioner of Palo Monte, an Afro-Cuban religion — and will be followed by an artist from Mexico who will offer an in-depth examination of cultures and rituals.
"We want to recognize the plurality of ways of being spiritual and commenting on culture," says De Vuono of the series.
Reverend Acres' own spirituality tracks back to a southern Baptist upbringing. In his personal artist's statement, Acres describes his youth as the son of a "hellfire and brimstone southern Baptist minister" to whom congregations responded with an acute desire to "know the ecstasy of his passion."
Born in Fort Payne, Ala., in 1970 and "born again" in 1980 at a Baptist church in Flat Rock, Tenn., Acres followed his father on preaching circuits every Sunday and eventually took the torch himself, preaching in Primitive Baptist congregations between ages 14 and 18. He credits his father with being the inspiration and instigation behind his present ministry.
Acres defines his dual mission as a pastor and artist: "I wish only to be a spectacle, a Paul of Tarsus, a Saint Quentin, a martyr for the pleasure of the public and the high goodness of art, for the glory for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I want to dazzle and seduce... and in the end, pass a little of that Las Vegas religion into the bloodstreams of all those I clutch in my all-inclusive arms."
Clearly, the Baptist fervor of his youth translates into his performance art. During his visit to the Inland Northwest, Acres will bring Spokane area audiences his own original performances, presented in conjunction with his wife Lisa.
"I will be delivering a sermon," says Acres, "but I use performance art and modern dance as vehicles for my message. If everything works, you should have visual art, drama and holy rollin' good times."
"I was taken by his presentation and his performance piece," says Tom O'Day, art gallery director at SFCC. "I took a trip to L.A. two years ago and saw a video of one of Acres' performances. I liked it and immediately responded to the piece because it had humor to it and yet, at the same time, I could tell he was very passionate about what he did."
Acres received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Doctor of Divinity from the World Christianship Ministry in Fresno, Calif. In addition to performance art, Acres articulates his ideas and doctrines through various visual arts.
Using holographic vinyl, screen prints, photographic transparencies and a medley of other media, Acres generates works of art that find thematic origin in literal interpretations of Biblical imagery — most often from the Book of Revelations. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is rendered in lines of colored silicon drawn over vinyl cutouts, and his piece Lamb of God presents a grotesque, life-size casting with seven bulging eyes and seven horns.
Far from formulaic, all of Acres' art finds its style in an eclectic array of moods and mantras. Referencing Biblical wisdom as well as the crass culture of American pop entertainment, Acres indulges every tone from light-hearted irreverence to religious flamboyance. His dramatic presentations promise to raise issues of intrigue and possible offense to both the religious and non-religious, liberals and conservatives, artists and everyone else.
"A lot of artists might be offended, a lot of Christians might be offended," says De Vuono. "But I think our offense with his work comes from the fact that we are unaccustomed to the conflation of art and religion."
"Of course I get resistance," says Acres. "And I will talk about this in Spokane, but for the most part, I am accepted. I never think of skeptics as the enemy — [they're] simply a challenge. In One Corinthians 4:21, Paul said, 'What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?' I will always try to approach my business with a gentle spirit, and my business is the human heart. As far as how I perceive myself, I believe that I am a pastor who ministers through contemporary art."
Acres also extends his artistic expression into the world of words, as he writes regularly for ArtIssues and lectures periodically on art and Christian theology. His visual compositions have been exhibited internationally in Sweden, Austria and throughout the U.S., with solo exhibitions in New York, Las Vegas, L.A., and Austin, Texas.
"I think he's going to be enormously funny," says De Vuono. "His work has that kind of funky humor, and he's a sharp commentator on the foibles and foolishness of our culture. I think his presentation will be really entertaining, as well as intellectually and artistically provocative. We're lucky to get him."
Rev. Ethan Acres appears on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 11:30 am at the Spokane Falls Community College's SUB, Room A/B. Later that day, at 7:30 pm, he'll be at the Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), 1020 W. Riverside. On Wednesday, Feb. 14, he'll be at the Eastern Washington University Art Auditorium (in the Art Building on the Cheney campus) at noon. All appearances are free and open to the public. Call: 533-3746.