There's a long-standing tradition of Protestant evangelism in the United States that grafts Biblical instruction to folk art. Its precedent was none other than Jesus Christ, who formulated his message through the kind of homely parables that his poor constituency would understand. Modern versions run the gamut from open-air revival meetings to television prayer clubs, drive-in chapels, big-screen sermons and Christian rock bands.
The Reverend Ethan Acres is the latest in the tradition. For the past seven years he has been busy spreading the Word through a variety of unconventional channels. He has staged performances, delivered sermons from a converted trailer-home he calls the Highway Chapel, and as for this exhibition produced an array of mixed-media objects. Although wall-mounted text panels inform the viewer about which Biblical passage each piece is meant to illustrate Book of Revelations, the Gospels, Genesis or Judges and while he is sincere about the theological relevance of this latest work (a sincerity which is essential to the impact of the show), nobody could leave Acres' exhibition with any deeper understanding of Christian principles. You might learn a thing or two about how organised religion works, but what makes Acres' art enjoyable is purely a matter of style, not theology.
When the Reverend portrays the four horses of the Apocalypse as bucking broncos with himself as the ecstatic rider in a hilarious set of digitally altered photographs titled Rev. Acres Breaks the Four (1998), he is reviving the classical mistrust between religious imagery and its content. The relationship between art and religious devotion has long provoked debate: ancient Jews forbade visual representation altogether, Protestant reformers did away with statuary and the Catholic church has been criticised for everything from the finery of its vestments to the grandness of its cathedrals. But the Reverend doesn't just suffer from a rupture between form and content, he mines it for all it's worth as any good showman would. His work is funny, flashy, gauche and eye-catching: all things which generally arouse suspicion about the integrity of what is being said.
The admonition in Matthew's Gospel not to cast pearls before swine seems apt. In Pearls 2 Pigs (1999), Acres illustrates the anecdote with a herd of pink and white vinyl hogs with red flashing light bulb eyes which squeal and lurch lecherously whenever a viewer approaches. Works like this don't illustrate the Bible so much as use it as a pretext for their own histrionics. The closest any piece comes to offering an interpretation or commentary on the source is Locusts (1999). It is based on a scene from the Book of Revelations in which the insects are described as having 'On their heads crowns like gold' and 'the faces of men...'. The Reverend covers one corner of the gallery with a swarm of fabric constructions that represent the anthropomorphic creatures being described, although with telling substitutions. Instead of crowns they wear combat helmets, camouflage fatigues, dog tags and suggestive looking stingers on their tails in the form of small, red, ballistic missiles. So much for exegesis.
But of course, an art gallery is no place for Biblical exegesis anyway, and Acres wisely sticks to what art does well, which is to put on a good show. So does that make him a charlatan? Maybe, maybe not. His is a cultivated ambivalence that keeps the work interesting. What Acres understands is that faith has a natural and even necessary counterpart in doubt. He professes the former, but inspires the latter which has to make for some fireworks. You may doubt his religious sincerity, or his credentials as a preacher, or his motives as an evangelist, all doubts at once inflamed and denied by the title 'Reverend' he places in front of his name. It's certainly one way to keep an audience hooked which is, after all, the first thing any preacher or artist has to accomplish.