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In L.A. for art's sake

They came, they saw, they created. What brought these four artists and a new wave of emigres from around the world to Southern California? (Hint: It wasn't just the palm trees and sunny weather.)

May 04, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

The black BMW is moving fast down the 110, approaching the Century Freeway. In the back is Yutaka Sone, looking slightly shaggy in his sky blue T-shirt, cargo pants and bruised sneakers. He is hung over and craving a cigarette. But as the car ascends the flyover, his mood lifts.

"This is my favorite," he says, pointing at the elevated freeways soaring together in huge, concrete swirls. "A blooming flower," he says, opening his hands, mimicking the aperture of petals.

This is how the Japanese-born artist experiences his new city. His take on L.A. can be seen in a one-person installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary beginning today: "Jungle Island" -- four marble sculptures, replicas of actual freeway intersections, anchored in tropical greenery.

As the car reaches the apex of the overpass, Sone looks over his shoulder toward the murky downtown skyline. This is the center of the city, he says, quickly adding a disclaimer: "Please note: 'says beginner L.A. guy, Yutaka Sone.' "

You can't prove it through government stats (the bureaucracies don't track artist emigres), but the city's curators, gallery owners and the artists themselves are convinced that a new wave of foreign-born "beginner" types like Sone is showing up in L.A. for art's sake.

Jeremy Strick, the director of MOCA, calls the numbers "significant." Anne Philbin, head of the UCLA Hammer Museum, says young artists from everywhere "make a beeline to L.A."

"New York has remained the marketing center for visual arts, but L.A. has taken over as the production center," says Sammy Hoy, dean of Otis College of Art and Design and himself a Hong Kong emigre.

Everyone can list practical reasons why: the draw of top-flight art schools in the region, relatively cheap studio space, a long-expanding gallery-museum-society art scene and presto, critical mass.

As for the intangibles, think freedom. The newcomers have a nomadic bent. Many have bi-continental commutes, working and living here part time, selling and exhibiting elsewhere.

"L.A. doesn't impose obligations. It's not a community you have to pledge allegiance to," says Strick. "That independence is very appealing. They can be left alone."

Four artists -- Sone, photographers Karin Apollonia Muller and Stefanie Schneider from Germany, as well as Austrian-Italian painter Hubert Schmalix -- are part of the new emigre wave. They found L.A. in different ways, but they stayed because the fit is just right. For them, Los Angeles is, at the least, a muse; at the most, their central subject. They like the light, the space. And then there's the weather.

A world in one city

Karin Apollonia Muller, a traveler, found a destination in L.A.

The daughter of a Rhine River barge captain, the 39-year-old Muller grew up between places; her home was always moving.

As an adult, Muller worked for travel magazines, flying around the world to shoot exotic locales. By her own admission, she stayed on the glossy surface of the places she documented. After a while, it became irrelevant if she was in Thailand or Vietnam -- she was photographing the same place. Eventually, she tired of motion.

"I always had this feeling that I'm a floating being," she says, standing on the roof of a downtown building, setting up her tripod to photograph a parking lot. As a photographer, she felt frustrated. In the end, she says, "I felt like a space-less being."

Muller first came to Los Angeles on an German-American grant in 1996. The following summer, she became an artist in residence at Villa Aurora, once the Pacific Palisades home of German-Jewish emigre Lion Feuchtwanger, now a center for German-American cultural exchange.

Her preconceptions about Southern California could have been torn from the pages of the travel magazines she had worked for: sunshine, palm trees and the beach.

"I realized that was not what L.A. is about."

Instead, the rootless Muller found a place without a center. She felt dislocated yet strangely at home.

"It makes me happy," she says. "It does give me some hold. In a way, I was desperate, but I found hope, a direction."

She began photographing the city: empty lots, the corners of a well-traveled intersection, the ignored places. She only shoots under gray skies -- avoiding the cinematic and characteristic L.A. light, and instead making purposefully flat panoramas, washed out and colorless, to the point of disappearing.

Muller means to illustrate the illusion of permanence. "We always tend to think we possess the world, but we don't. One day, it will fall apart."

Over time, her images have become increasingly specific but, she says, they should not be viewed as a commentary or a journalistic documentary about the city. "You can't document place, and space -- it's not real," she says. "I don't want to give an answer. I want to open people's eyes, to open their eyes about L.A."

"A more apposite public portrait of this city would be hard to imagine," wrote The Times' art critic, Christopher Knight, of her work last year.

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