If only things were black and white, there would be no place for doubt.
It’s the gray area where Spokane oil painter Stephen Rue’s vulnerable human forms take shape, filled with depictions of soulful emotion and cerebral conflict, many of the figures coming out of the darkness and into the light – a metaphor for the search for meaning and struggle with faith.
“I usually have this dichotomy – this dueling, light versus dark, good versus evil, hope versus despair type of thing going through all of my work,” Rue said as he prepared for his third solo exhibition at Lorinda Knight Gallery, opening during downtown’s First Friday art walk.
“Whereas the last show was darker, exploring a darker side of myself, these (paintings) are more hopeful,” he said – like “peeking in at the lightness out of the darkness.”
The exhibit, “Revelations,” explores a double entendre that draws upon ancient biblical writings and allegories. It gives light to Rue’s personal reflections, disclosing themes that speak to us all.
“I like that double meaning that Revelation is not only referring to the book in the Bible, but then, revelation, as far as something new is being discovered here,” said Rue, who is an art lecturer at Whitworth University.
His work is powerful, intense and filled with so much riveting realism it will stop you in your tracks. By placing his biblical figures in unexpected contemporary scenes, dressed in present-day clothing rather than in the robes and togas from their historical time period, Rue opens a new dialogue to ancient, religious themes.
He creates a curious dimension by often using the same person as a model to represent two or more distinct figures in his paintings, symbolizing different aspects of one’s character.
At 6-feet-by-7 1/2- feet, “Pieta” is the largest painting Rue has made – too large to fit in the attic art studio above his home’s garage.
As he was making the finishing touches to the work that spanned his dining room wall, he spoke of his reasons for choosing one female model to represent all three figures in the work – including the figure of Christ.
The classic depiction of the pieta, made famous in painting and sculpture by Renaissance masters, depicts the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ on her lap.
Rue’s “Pieta” focuses on three repeating female figures on a park bench. The Mary figure cradles the dead body of Christ, while an indifferent onlooker chews on her sandwich.
“Originally, I did envision it with Christ as a man,” said Rue. But the message he was trying to convey in the painting was anguish, and anguish was best depicted through Mary.
“I thought the female figure would work better,” he said, and thus she became the Christ figure.
“I consider all my work very symbolic; the models are symbols for other things,” Rue said. “The implication of meaning is just as powerful as the meaning itself.”
In “Abraham and Isaac,” Rue paints himself as both father and son. Isaac is curled up, depicted as an adult in a terrified fetal position on the altar beneath his despairing, faithful father.
“Doubt is my favorite theological idea,” Rue said while discussing his recent work, “The Doubt of St. Peter.” A focal point in the show, the 28-inch circular panel depicts St. Peter sinking into deep darkness after doubting that he could follow Jesus and walk on water, while his hands reach up to the light.
“You can see it as sinking or rising. There is conflict and there is hope that usually goes hand-in-hand with my work,” said Rue.
Other titles in the series include “Resurrection,” “The Annunciation,” “Eve and Adam,” “The Martyrdom of St. Peter,” “Supper at Emmaeus” and “St. Lucy.”
“These were the stories that I grew up with,” said Rue. “My dad was our pastor, my grandfather was a Lutheran pastor. We come from a pretty liberal branch of the Lutheran church.”
Rue utilizes many of the compositional and painting techniques of 16th century Renaissance masters who painted religious subjects.
“I draw upon Caravaggio all the time,” he said. “He used himself as the portrait for the severed head of Goliath. I think there’s a lot of his own psychology that goes into that.”
Rue’s work explores his own emotional and psychological hardships.
“You could read into it with my own personal storyline, but I think it’s broad enough to where you could bring in your own meanings,” he said.
“I like it when viewers come in and put their own emotional symbolism into it.”