Vahe Berberian’s milagros come in words, images, and emotions
March 31, 2007
by Paul Chaderjian
Before we enter his second-floor studio, painter, performer, writer Vahe Berberian insists on serving oranges and mandarins from the trees that line the apartment building’s driveway. Vahe has been nurturing these trees for more than a decade, and you can tell he’s proud of them. He likes green things, he says.
Three of the units in the white apartment building – a few miles north of the San Fernando Valley’s arterial Ventura Boulevard, in the flats of the Valley – are where Vahe paints, lives, and stores his works of art.
Six months out of the year, however, here’s not here. The tall and thin 51-year-old, with salt-and-pepper braids, spends a lot of his time taking his performance art and his monologues to Armenian communities as far away as the homeland and Australia.
On this Tuesday afternoon, Vahe is in the Southland and plucking oranges off his tree with a long-handled fruit picker’s pole. He retrieves about a dozen oranges and mandarins, placing them in a plastic grocery bag. Once he is settled in his sunny and airy upstairs studio, peeling an orange, we begin our interview.
The Casitas Warehouse
The peg on this cover story in the Armenian Reporter, dear reader, is that on March 31, Vahe will transform a 16 thousand square foot warehouse in Atwater Village, south of Glendale, into a gallery. The hundreds of fans expected to attend will also receive a copy of this very issue you have in your hands. Perhaps you’re one of the ones who attended. How was the show?
On display at the warehouse on the 31st will be dozens of Vahe’s milagros – small, thin and thick pieces of metal, meticulously painted and individually framed by the artist himself. We have come to his studio to find out about the milagros.
“We call them milagros,” Vahe explains, “because in Spanish, it means miracle or surprise, and they are a little of both. The miracle and surprise Vahe is talking about are four inches by four of aluminum. He began experiments with metal when he received a request from a film producer to create a ‘wall of voodoo,’ made up of a hundred individually painted pieces.
“They needed it for a film,” he says. “I did it, and I realized that I liked the process. I knew that it was going to take me somewhere. So I spent months and months working on the series, all one hundred pieces of metal, almost like tarot cards.”
Vahe says when he began the project, he had no idea what occult and voodoo figures were and what he would draw and paint on these small pieces of metallic canvas. Once he began experimenting, Vahe says, he discovered he would use acrylic and that the size was dictating his style.
The art of discovery with the milagros was that he couldn’t create abstractions and abstract images as he does in his larger-than-life paintings. “When they’re so small,” he says, “abstraction doesn’t translate well. So the milagros are more etudes (studies). They are figurative, colorful, whimsical.”
To paint fifty pieces of metal for the film, Vahe says he tapped into his Jungian subconscious, coming up with figures he didn’t know resided in his mind. “A lot of them are symbols,” he says, “but I’m not using them as symbols. I generally don’t have names for the pieces, but this one,” he says, pointing to one with two female figures, “is called Pari Passu. It means with the same step. It’s Latin.”
The exhibit at a warehouse at 3191 Casitas Avenue – where a burgeoning community of artists, architects, filmmakers, writers, and photographers have set up their workspaces – will present the milagros for one night only.
Vahe has priced the pieces lower than the works he exhibits and sells exclusively at the Gallery Saint Germaine in Los Angeles. He says he wanted to give fans of his work who wanted Vahes but cannot afford them, a chance to own one of his originals.
Among those who can afford and collect Vahe’s painting are a Who’s Who from the arts literati – from Hollywood, Paris, and New York. Among Vahe’s patrons and collectors are Los Angeles Opera director Peter Sellars, architect Frank Israel, publishers Alain and Raymonde, actresses Lucy Liu and Mariette Hartley, football Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, artist Tanya Hovnanian, and filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
Abstract Expressionism, À la L.A.
Vahe’s works of art are big, like everything American. His pieces range from fourteen feet by fourteen to four feet by six. “The larger, the better,” he says, and that’s why Vahe does not plan to create any more of the four inch by six milagros.
“When I started working years ago,” he says, “I was using my fingers. Gradually, I started using my wrist. Then I started using my elbow, and then I started using my shoulder, and now my entire body paints. It’s a ritualistic thing. It’s almost like dancing, and you achieve that only when you’re working on large pieces. I want to achieve the freedom of working on a large piece.”
I ask him if he had to label his work, what school or genre would classify his work. “I would say I’m an abstract expressionist,” he answers. “My work is abstract. Not Jackson Pollock or Gorky. Probably, the closest are Cy Twombly and Antoni Tapies.”
“His work is about who he is,” says Caroline Lais-Tufenkian from her home in Glendale during a phone interview. Caroline studied Vahe and five other Armenian artists as the subject of her graduate school thesis. Her focus was how Armenian artists bring to their art their cultural background and create a new hybrid cultural identity.
“Several components have been the key in the construction of Berberian’s complex and rich aesthetic identity,” says Caroline, who was the curator of one of Vahe’s nearly three dozen one-man and group show. “For example, his Armenianness, cross-cultural background, modern abstract expressions, and him being a Los Angeles artist. Berberian offers a new dialect to the western artistic style of
Caroline says this new western style does not identify with any specific style. However, she says, it specifies a personal and spontaneous attitude. “I think his work is so spontaneous and definitely shows his personal attitude.”
I ask Caroline how the modern critical and curatorial studies world explains the simplicity of abstract expressionism. She says that with abstract art, people sometimes do say, ‘a child could have done that.’ However, Caroline explains that an artist has to go through many years of intensive art training before he or she can something that is childlike and works as a piece of art.
Berberian’s Peers & His Evolution
Vahe says when he began painting, it was during the years that another well-known, modern-day abstract expressionist, Basquiat, was also painting. Vahe says if you look at his work and compare it to Basquiat’s, they are very close, almost identical.
I ask him how his work as a Lebanese-Armenian now living in Los Angeles could resemble the work of an African-American living on the streets of New York. Vahe says he believes the similarity between his work and Basquiat’s is due to the political, social dynamics of the times.
“Then I gradually evolved into more of a minimalist style,” he says. “When you’re younger, you have this tendency to show off. Your colors are bright. You want to say, I can do this. I can do this, and I can do that.”
The older an artist becomes, says Vahe, the more mature his or her work also becomes. “And hopefully,” he says, “you create your own palette of colors. It’s ironic, because you work all your life in order to create a language of your own, and then you get upset when that language is not understood. It’s funny in a way.”
Vahe says he feels fortunate that he can make a descent living off his art and that success is not something he expected. “We grew up with that notion of artists dying poor and hungry and starving,” he says. “However, now I realize that with acknowledgement comes a sense of liberation. Your work changes. It becomes freer, more powerful, more raw, because you do not need to please anyone anymore. Your work becomes less adornmental, less decorative, and more immediate. It becomes you.”
The Ritual of Painting and the Movies
Vahe says he is a creature of habit, and that process of creating art for him is walking into his studio without any concepts or ideas. “The whole concept of having an idea and materializing the idea turns the work of art into an illustration, he says, quickly adding that he is not an illustrator.
“I start somewhere and work with the assumption that art is a series of mistakes,” he explains. “I stand in front of the canvas and make my first mistake. Then, I go on and on, and I stop when I think I like what I see. I stop when I think that I can’t make any more mistakes.”
Vahe’s body of work, his canon so far, is made up of hundreds of paintings. Every one, except the few his wife Betty has saved, have been sold. “I am very happy that she has kept one or two from different periods or phases,” he says.
“The ones that I own are rented and used in different films like the three Spiderman movies. I know they’re going to make Spiderman four and five, and they wanted to buy the paintings, but I didn’t sell. Because I know they will come back to rent them.”
Vahe says the paintings his wife has held on to have been rented dozens of times over the past fourteen years by movie production companies and used on film sets. It must help if one’s wife is an expert set designer; but the artwork has to be powerful enough to stand on its own, especially when millions of movie-going eyes will be forced to focus on them through the lens of a 35-mm camera.
In Hollywood, Vahe is represented by an agency called Film Art LA. His agent submits his art to dozen of films or television shows a year. “I have five films coming out this year. I have ‘Spiderman 3.’ I have ‘Ocean’s 13.’ I have ‘I am Legend’ with Will Smith. I have ‘Enchanted.’ I have ‘Holiday’ and a few more.”
Duality of Introvert and Extrovert
According to Vahe’s mother, when he was a year-and-a-half old, he began to doodle, pretending to be writing words and sentences. “After 50 years,” he says, “I sometimes think that was the ultimate translation of what I stand for – writing, almost writing whatever’s coming.”
With more than a dozen film scripts, almost a dozen plays, and several monologues in his credits, Vahe is also a published author. His two novels, Letters from Zakhtar and In the Name of the Father and the Son have been well received.
“I think, Paul,” he says to me, “that I’m realizing that I have this split personality. One part of me is the entertainer, the one who seeks attention. That’s the part of me that is the actor, that does the monologues. The other part of me shies away from attention, loves putting on the music and painting without interruption or writing for hours and hours. I love it. I love it.”
Vahe says his monologues, which he has performed all over the world, on Armenian-themed cruises at sea, on the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund telethon, at churches and fundraisers, are the perfect combination of the two sides of the artist in him. “Because, I sit down and write,” he says, “and then I perform. It’s the perfect combination.”
Vahe says painting can be a stage for him as well. He often has friends come to visit while he’s painting. “People come, hang around,” he says, “have coffee and watch. I talk to them, but at the same time, I paint. And I love that. I love that. It’s like, on those days, I do not entertain, but I welcome their presence, and I get entertained by them, and I incorporate everything that happens in this room in that painting.”
“I love people and the situations they find themselves in,” says Vahe, explaining his monologues. He has written, performed, and videotaped three of them already. His DVDs and videos of “Nayev,” “Yevaylen,” and “Dagaveen” are distributed all over the world, are available on www.vaheberberian.com, and have a loyal following in the homeland.
“I don’t make fun of people because I think weak people make fun of others,” he says. “I like to laugh with people instead, and I want to point at certain things that are funny like ideas, situations, and circumstances that put us in situations.”
Vahe says his Spalding Gray-influenced monologues are primarily in Armenian because if he performed them in English, he is certain they would take over his life. “Sometimes, I feel like my art is suffering because of the performances.”
When Vahe is on tour, his painting has to take a backseat to his monologues. He says monologues hurt his pocketbook because his painting are more lucrative, and because there is a lot of traveling involved. “Last year, six months out of the year, I was away,” he says. “I performed in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, then San Francisco, Florida, Toronto, Montreal, Yerevan, Paris, Marseille, Valance, Lyon, London, on the ocean, Beirut, Sydney, Melbourne, and it takes its toll.”
“Since I spend a lot of time in Europe,” says Vahe, “and I love the Paris culture, the cafe culture, I started going to the Starbucks in my neighborhood when they put two small tables outside. There were no other coffee shops around, so I was always at Starbucks. I did a lot of my writing there.”
Vahe says his both of his novels were composed by hand at the corner table at the Starbucks on Ventura Boulevard near Van Nuys. “Then gradually, it became almost like a meeting place for everyone who wanted to see me.”
Part of the his motivation to hold court at the coffee shop, says Vahe, was due to his simple unwillingness to wash coffee cups at his studio. “I didn’t want to clean up after people,” he says.
“Something very, very important,” he continues. “A lot of people, they want your undivided attention, and after a while, that becomes very draining, especially with the young people who come and spend time with me. So, I think unconsciously, I created a situation where I would bring people together, and it would give me a chance to dilute the situation.”
This Starbucks tradition has not spanned more than a decade. Vahe says on certain days and nights, as many as 25 friends and acquaintances will gather around his table. “A lot of people will just stand there,” he says. “It’s sometimes an international event. You’ll have Germans, French, people from all over and people of all ages.”
Young and old, people from various generations of life coming together is important to Vahe. He says he doesn’t see much of it in American life. “When you see an 80-year-old talking to a 16-year-old,” he says, “you look twice.”
Vahe says he wants to see more people from different walks of life coming together, talking, exchanging ideas, and creating a public forum and cross-generational, cross-vocational, cross-economic dialogue.
Vahe immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 and earned his undergraduate degree in journalism at Woodbury University in California. When he began taking graduate courses in journalism, he realized that he was never going to be a journalist.
However, Vahe did spend 12 years writing, reviewing films, and working as the layout and graphics designer for the Asbarez daily newspaper in Glendale. “I love the newspaper business,” he says.
The frustration with the news business, says Vahe, has to do with the impermanence of the medium. “You do something, and when the curtains close like in theatre, it’s done. You can never repeat it. The experience is finished. You do your work, when it comes back from the printer, you have to work on the new issue. That’s it.”
Betty, Betty, Betty
“We grew up together,” says Vahe of his wife, movie set decorator and set designer Betty Berberian. “We married when we were very young. We met when she was studying art history and was in theater. Over the past 27 years, we grew up together. She knows my art better than I do. She knows me so well, and I’m very lucky to have that. She is also my conscience. She’s very sharp, and her sense of aesthetics is unbelievable.”
Vahe and Betty have collaborated on many stage productions as well. Betty directed and produced several plays that Vahe has written and acted in. “I admire what she does, and I’m very lucky because I’m surrounded by fantastic people. A lot of these young people, who come and spend time here, you know, they inspire you, they give you energy.”
Vahe says the bottom line is that he loves people. His love of people and their love for him are perhaps why he was able to beat life-threatening pancreatic cancer a few years back. He says he loves people not just because they love him. “It’s the other way around. I love them. I have genuine compassion toward people. The older I get, the more of that compassion I find for animals and trees. I love animals and trees. Green stuff,” like the beautiful orange and mandarin trees that greet visitors to his studio.