Levon Jamgochian: Legendary Painter, Printmaker and Sculptor


By Marni Pilafian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WHEATON,Md. — The steep climb of 20 handcrafted steps to reach the hilltop home of artist Levon Jamgochian was only the beginning of this adventure. Wheaton is a Washington suburb of scant hills; but Jamgochian bought a house on a steep hillside. (“It reminded me of the churches built into the sides of steep mountains in the rugged countryside of Armenia.”)

He used to tie a rope to his lawnmower to cut the grass by sending it down the hill and pulling it up again and again; in order to avoid this exhausting method, he built a series of terraces to overcome the steepness and planted pines and evergreens. Lush arbors resulted. He framed the front door with slender evergreens, growing and bending over time, bowing over the entrance. It graces the inner- sanctum of the artist.

The house has walls lined with a rich history of Jamgochian’s works. Prints hang in order of their gallery showings, evolving from one medium with a one-dimensional view to layer upon layer of prints evolving into something magical. In one series, a simple view of nature evolves into a series of prints bringing forth images of a New York skyline.

The living room holds wood sculptures wrought and rendered from nature. Gnarled roots of wood, tree knots and elbows placed at angles to capture the imagination, installed on a finished block of wood. Some appear to capture the human form in all its grace. Others bend the imagination in attempting to place the object into a known perspective . Looking upward, colorful paintings suspended from the ceiling surprise the visitor. These are the highly skilled works of a truly gifted, passionate and hardworking artist.

Jamgochian, born in Beirut, is an artist with a global following. He has held more than 50 solo exhibitions worldwide, from Miami to Milan to Moscow, from Istanbul to Toronto, from the Ukraine to Echmiadzin.

At the age of 12, he studied art at the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus with Sebouh Apkarian. He graduated with a first prize from Brera Academy of Fine Arts, Milan, Italy, and from the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice.

Trained also as an interior designer, he had earlier designed the homes of several senators in the metro Washington area.

Yet his passion is in creating art.

He has a permanent display of his works in Gumri, at the National Architecture and Urban Life Museum. After the Armenian earthquake of 1988, Jamgochian was invited by the Armenian government to show his work, and was hoping to establish an international graphic art center, museum and gallery in Gumri, before the promises were broken.

He started an arts education program there and also taught in Yerevan. He discovered passion in his students’ works over the course of the two years he lived in Armenia, and through their inspiration, he discovered more of his own.

Jamgochian donated more than $300,000 worth of his paintings to assist in the post-earthquake relief efforts, raising funds by exhibiting all over the Caucasus region, in Russia and the Ukraine.

His work is the culmination of his life and learning within four cultures — Lebanon, where he grew up; Armenia, his ancestral home; Italy, where he studied art and interior design and America, where all his experiences and perceptions combined and transformed into unique multicultural, multi-faceted paintings, sculptures and prints.

As Montgomery College art professor John Carr described, “More than a few images seem to have sprouted from seeds carried by the wind from distant mysterious places. These works offer welcomed, challenging visual adventures that require thorough examination and careful thought to be appreciated.”

Jamgochian has received numerous grants, invitations from governments to exhibit and teach art. He is a recognized artist of global proportions by the international media. Jamgochian’s permanent collections are included in the museums of cities such as Yerevan at the Armenian Genocide Museum, Gumri at the National Architecture and Urban Life Museum, the National Gallery in Yerevan, Vanadzor, Yeghegnadzor and Echmiadzin; in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC; museums in Paris, Venice and Kiev, Ukraine; the Mardigian Museum in Jerusalem, the Museum of the Catholicosate at Antelias, Lebanon and the National Galleries of Stepanakert and Shushi, Artsakh.

His current collection of works, titled “The Eternity Suite,” is a lifetime of pieces, some created as early as 1961. At the age of 15, he found a branch on a mountain in Lebanon, near Faraya, and turned it into a sculpture. That branch began his evolution of sculptures rendered from natural wood growths. Many of them have found their way into his garden out back, beginning as roots of trees.

“There is an interrelationship of images; when I create those sculptures, I take the images and forms from nature. My sculptures sculpt themselves. I follow the natural forms — what nature gives me. Nature takes the lead,” he explained.

One large c-shaped root is suspended over a wooden block base by a wire. It is a model of a larger sculpture that he can create and install as an outdoor exhibit. It moves, much like, he explains, life. “We take from life. And we give it back. Let the viewer interpret it. There is a lot of hidden symbolism. I try to go beyond the visible. I like to let people draw their own conclusions,” he added.

His art comes from his perception of nature and how he transforms it. Symbolism evolves from his semi-surrealistic approach to sculpture and printmaking.

“I like to go beyond the visible and blend what is inside of me with what I see. I invite the viewer to become a participant in my art,” Jamgochian said. “I want them to discover in my works things that I may not have discovered myself.”

His print series, “Before Dusk” and “Eternal Fields and Hills,” led him to focus on five images. Using different techniques, his images began to transform into surreal and abstract images.

“Since 9/11, a lot of changes have been going on in my images,” said Jamgochian. “I came slowly, print by print, embossing on top of the main images, to recognize a newimage started to emerge — water, fire, earth, nature. Water appears in the background. The prints are organic.”

Carr adds, “Subtle metaphors, complex layers of color and texture, as well as intellectual depth all contribute to bring these works to life.”

In his art studies at Brera, Jamgochian did his thesis on ancient Armenian miniatures. The refined techniques and soft, subdued and some bright colors of this historical art is reflected in his works. His known and imagined patterns of nature in his focal image evolve, print by print, into a surreal pattern.

“Something else emerges,” he says. “It leads one to focus on different images. The images evolve. The viewer sees a different concept.”

The prints are made as monotype, the only one of its kind, and lithographs, with few prints produced. The traditional approach to printmaking is to pull a limited number of prints from the same plate (etchings, lithographs), number them and then destroy or “strike” the printing plate. Jamgochian has developed unique methods of transforming the original plate, utilizing the prepared aluminum technique, stencils and embossing. His “reverse roller image technique” yields monochromatic and shaded images, producing a hidden surrealism.

“Very lyrical,” he points out. “The most important issue I want to focus on is that we are ruining nature. I try to maintain nature’s purity — the shapes in the prints become rocks which are transformed into human figures. This emerged as my “Survivor Series.” Some of the images of trees were transformed into survivors. Forms and images recur, even without thinking about it, because deep down relationships between survivors demonstrate human sufferance as in 9/11. And yetmy forms all come from nature, not from human forms.” His creative perceptions are expressed through his art as visual metaphor.

Jamgochian’s work fits into the framework of modern printmaking in the world’s art timeline.

“From the 1960s to the 1980s to the present, I developed novel ideas and techniques, but I don’t want to overdo it. I am the sole processor of my prints. I use no assistants. The evolution of results I have produced speak for themselves.”

His collection of prints and wood sculptures will be featured in his solo exhibition, “Eternity Suite.” He calls his exhibits by a traditional musical series of works, or “suite” to highlight the broader scope of his works as viewed by his conceptual lens as an artist. They deliver a common message through variations on a common theme of design. His “Unity Is Strength” suite, for example, links an image of Mount Ararat to the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty, his first vision of America when he arrived in 1968. Visiting Armenia in 1979 had a profound effect on his art. As one of the second generation of Armenians removed from the 1915 Armenian Genocide, he was struck by the contrast between his new life in the United States and his historical ancestry. His “Unity Is Strength” suite developed from this experience, fusing Jamgochian’s old world with his new world. In one lithograph, “Welcome to the New World,” a large diamond held up by a human figure, hovers over a city skyline. “The diamond symbolizes purity, strength and power, which, inverted, is also the shape of Mount Ararat. When I was there, I was very moved by it,” he explained.

In Jamgochian’s series of “Eternity” prints, the initial five basic images are metamorphosed, leading into pure, mystical, organic and religiously- indestructible values, which are also depicted in the wooden sculptures, as the morphed nature of rotting Earth.

Concerned about his future ability to produce works of art since he has become disabled after two accidents, he has been focused on preparing for his exhibit for the past year, in spite of daily back pain.

Jamgochian’s opening reception will launch the “Eternity Suite” exhibit, on February 6, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., and will run through March 1 at Rockville Civic Center Park, at the Glenview Mansion Art Gallery, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, Md. The gallery opening will also feature an afternoon solo concert by his gifted and award-winning violinist son, Arec Jamgochian, 15, accompanied by pianist Irina Kats, spanning different eras of classical composers.

“This collection is my last hurrah,” he sighed.

Let us hope not.