Vahan Bego is first and foremost a sculptor. Which does not mean that his productions in other mediums – be they pencil, ink, oil or pastel - are of second order importance to his sculptures, but rather that he approaches his compositions in these mediums with a sculptor’s eye and techniques.
Vahan developed his drawing skills in Armenia, when, day after day, his high school teacher sent him out into the city, instructing him to sketch scenes from everyday life. Later, as a student of sculpture, Vahan experimented with different mediums in his compositions, sometimes using charcoal and pastels. However, he really developed his skills in these mediums after he arrived in Poland in 1993, armed only with pencils, paper and a set of pastels. For the first few years in Poland he focused on drawing, pastels and painting.
The foundation for anything that Vahan develops into a full-blown work is invariably a drawing. Every single one of his paintings, sculptures or pastels can be traced back to a drawing, most of which are about the size of the palm of your hand. These drawings, having provided the solid basis for a work, are buried away in unwieldy archives. Frequently they are dug up again many years later and used as genomic templates from which new works can be generated, often in a different medium. In this way, whilst being almost identical in compositional terms, the new versions take on unique characteristics as they are reshaped, for example, in pastel rather than oil, and when they are inspired with the artist’s current experience. A prime example of this is the central figure in the pastel September of Jelenia Gora (1997), with the dimensions 50 x 70 cm, which would later find itself covering 100 square meters of a wall in Zgorzelec.
Having produced some truly huge sculptures, oil paintings, stage designs and multimedia projections for concerts, Vahan has come to realize, particularly through the medium of pastel, that often the smaller the work, the more monumental it can be.
Vahan’s pastels are not flat, two-dimensional affairs: he strives to make his figures tangible in a three-dimensional texture. The depth is carefully planned in the composition and then brought to life in the process of execution, in which layers are applied, removed and reapplied with a painstaking, punishing perfectionism.
After finding that he could apply the tools of his sculpting trade to pastel and oil, Vahan found he had to master an element that sculptors are not accustomed to dealing with: colour. Vahan’s approach to colour is intuitive, in the sense that he does not follow rules that are instilled in schools or which have been passed down through generations. His intuition does not open the gates to an uncontrolled outpouring of emotion, however. A colour ‘feels right’ or ‘feels necessary’ because it is symbolic, because it accesses a deep level of primordial symbolism. Though his works frequently have an intense emotional content, the emotions are distilled and refined into meticulously and arduously carved symbols. Vahan values shamanistic wisdom above the banalities of personal expression.
Vahan describes himself as a ‘filter of experience’. His works all derive from the impulses, experiences and observations of everyday life. Consequently his pastels are in stark contrast to the abstract experiments with colour which characterize the work of so many of his contemporaries. With Vahan, a work can be triggered by an item of news, by a friendship, or by the joys and tragedies of love, but these events are filtered and rendered into symbolic monuments captured in bronze, or on canvas or card.
A good example of this process is the pastel Thoughts of Babylon, which was created in response to hearing the news that Waldemar Milewicz, the Polish war correspondent, had been shot and killed in Iraq, in May 2004, when he was on the way back to Camp Babilon. The harrowing beauty of the finished pastel pays its respects to Milewicz and at the same is a more universal symbol of nostalgia and expectation.
This universal potential in Vahan’s symbolism can be seen in the pastel The Brushwood Gatherer (2004). After seeing a gold Jaguar pass a person who was slowly, patiently collecting brushwood at the side of the road, Vahan realized that we are all, each in our own way, and no matter how rich we are, brushwood gatherers. We are all engaged in the primordial business of adding sticks to our little bundles. Because of this, The Brushwood Gatherer speaks in a universal language and has been understood and appreciated everywhere it has been exhibited. It is a monument carved in pastel, a timeless work which embodies an archetypal idea: the humility of man.
Pastel is also a unique medium for Vahan because, with patience and rigor, it can be made to conjure up the magical textures and layers latent in the world of objects we take for granted with our utilitarian perception.