The quest for understanding the human condition is one that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and artists have all undertaken since the beginning of mankind.
Since their creation, humans have sought to better understand themselves and their places in the universe. What we've learned has made history, affecting our interactions with one another and with our world. What we haven't learned, the stuff that still remains a mystery, has made for some pretty good art, literature and rock 'n roll.
One of the more recent attempts to grasp the concept of the human condition by way of art comes from Oklahoma City-based artist Kristen Vails, who will display her newest exhibit, "The Horseman Condition," at the Tulsa Artists' Coalition Gallery, 9 E. Brady, Jan. 2-31.
"The Horseman Condition" is a collection of acrylic paintings that attempt to explore the human condition by attributing human emotion to images of horses.
Vails grew up in Piedmont, Okla., around horses. Her love of and familiarity with the animal made it a natural subject for the young artist, who received a BFA from the University of Oklahoma in 2006.
In her artist's statement, Vails writes, "Using the horse as a vehicle for expression, my work captures the spiritual aspects in nature that relate with the human condition. While the concept of the human condition may be considered tired, I embrace our innate desire to understand our existence."
When asked why she chose an animal to convey her perception of the human condition and not actual humans or some other figure, she said, "I think when you use humans to convey human emotion, it's almost too obvious. I think it's more interesting to use an animal to express struggle or joy. Also, people already kind of tie human qualities to animals. They already have that kind of connection with animals."
Anyone who has had a close family pet or spent a good amount of time around any kind of animal has probably, at one time or another, looked into that animal's eyes and imagined it was feeling something similar to what he or she feels as a human.
"I find it beautiful and ironic that our complexities are all so similar," reads Vails' artist's statement. "I find that painting horses in various natural instances can carry a different meaning when human emotions are conveyed. For the viewer, I strive to portray that these creatures are able to go beyond the sole purpose of their base need for survival and can begin to consider the intricacy of their place in this world.
"Although my vehicle of expression deals with self-examination, I believe the viewer can relate the horse with (his or her) own conditions through my conception of beauty."
Vails works in latex, acrylic paint and charcoal. She begins a work by layering latex on the canvas roughly, messily, allowing it to dry and leaving a layer of texture on the canvas. Over that, she paints her horses with acrylic paint, usually blurring some element of the horse's figure with a lighter, sometimes pastel, shade of paint. Sometimes, she'll add details to the horses using charcoal.
I looked at three years' worth of paintings depicting horses on Vails' Web site (www.kristenvails.com), and I found that, in many, the human expression she attempted to convey came off quite well. The emotion was there more often than it was not.
In some instances, the brushstrokes and the lines of charcoal lead the viewer to believe that the horse is in motion. In others, when it is just an eye or limb we are seeing, it's easy to read the pain, the wonder on the canvas.
The subdued hues with which Vails paints ensure that her messages come across organically.
Vails said she attempts to give her horses a more contemporary, modern feel.
"Horses can sometimes read Oklahoma western cliché," said Vails. "I'm not ashamed of that, but I like mine to be more contemporary."
Most of the works that will be displayed at the TAC Gallery are newer images, through Vails has been depicting horses since 2005.
Vails works as the executive director of the Plaza District, an up-and-coming arts and entertainment district that, once a run-down neighborhood in Oklahoma City, has seen revitalization in the past year in the form of performance art spaces, art galleries and shops.
Vails will display her work in April in the Oklahoma State Capitol's East Gallery.
"The Horseman Condition" opens Fri., Jan. 2 with an artist's reception from 6-9pm. Gallery hours are Thurs., Fri. and Sat. from 6-9pm and by appointment. The exhibition and opening reception are free and open to the public. For more, www.tacgallery.com.
Around Town This Week
Chamber Music Tulsa presents David Finckel and Wu Han on Sunday, Jan. 4 in the John H. Williams Theatre of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. at 3pm. A husband and wife duo, Finckel, a cellist, and Han, a pianist, serve as the artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and have been called two of the most influential and esteemed classical musicians working today. Tickets to the performance are $25. More information at www.tulsapac.com.
Also at the PAC, beginning Jan. 6, is an exhibit in the gallery (near Chapman Music Hall) by local graphic artist Darshan Phillips and "friends" called "Highway 412." The exhibit is a collection of photographs taken during a road trip to the state's panhandle and will be on display through Jan. 31. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 10:30am to 5:30pm and during Chapman Music Hall events.
At Living Arts of Tulsa, 308 S. Kenosha, and Liggett Studio, 314 S. Kenosha, opening Thurs., Jan. 8, are two installations by two Arkansas-based artists, Joel Armstrong and Neil Ward.
"Failing Hearts" at Living Arts and "On the Line" at Liggett are both collaborative projects by the two artists, who work together at John Brown University.
"Failing Hearts" deals with issues of, well, the heart--both its emotional and physical characteristics. "On the Line" is a portrayal of memory and human connection via clothes shaped out of wire, hanging from rusted clothes lines. Both exhibits open with an artists talk and reception on Thurs., Jan. 8 at 6:30pm. Mark your calendars. There will be more on these two exhibits next week.
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