In L.A. for art's sake

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.

Muller, who has lived in virtually every part of the city, from the Pacific Palisades to Los Feliz, has little money and works guerrilla-style. She climbs decrepit staircases, sneaking past security guards or talking her way into private buildings to get to rooftop and balcony vantage points.

She shows at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in L.A. and Julie Saul Gallery in New York but keeps one professional foot in Europe. This spring, she has a solo show in Cologne, and she will spend a semester teaching in Italy.

Her preferred space is still a downtown rooftop, pointing her camera toward an empty parking lot.

"Sometimes I feel lonely with my camera," she says. But "L.A. is an example of how I see the world. I want to share this experience."

Famous abroad, anonymous here

Hubert Schmalix came, like so many, for the sun.

He wanted to escape the European winter. The climate, and the privacy of Southern California living, cast its spell.

On this afternoon, Schmalix, the 50-year-old Austrian-Italian, is surrounded by easels supporting paintings in progress, sitting in the studio wing of the purple house he shares with his Malaysian wife and two children. They look out over a Mount Washington hillside covered with brush, toyon and black walnut trees.

Since moving here 16 years ago, he has not sold a single painting in Los Angeles. For him, L.A. is the workplace. Europe, especially his native Austria, is the market.

"It's a good place to work," he says of Los Angeles. "You have the choice: You can be at home working or you can go to art openings every night."

In Europe, "you're always involved. The curators, the museums, the galleries, everybody wants to involve you in something." Here, people leave each other alone, he says.

At times, though, he feels like "the king of Timbuktu who in L.A. is a dishwasher."

He cites other artists who are famous outside the city but who live here: Dutch painter Hans Broek and German artist Roger Herman. Herman and Schmalix were among the founders of the Black Dragon Society, one of the first art galleries on Chung King Road in Chinatown a few years ago.

In the last couple of years, he has noticed the art community becoming more nomadic, more international.

"Some artists, I always see them in the airport," he says.

As if to underscore his point, the phone rings: It's Angelika Taschen, the art book publisher who divides her time between Germany and Los Angeles. She is calling to share expat gossip.

Like her, Schmalix commutes regularly between Europe and the U.S., spending one week every four weeks in Vienna, where he teaches.

But Schmalix is also grounded in Los Angeles. A founding member of Austria's so-called "wild" painters, when he first got to town, he painted the view: large, colorful, specific geometrical suburban grids, rooftops as seen from a mountain or an airplane.

"When I moved here, it was very obvious in the paintings I was influenced by the city," he says. "It could only have been done here."

Eventually, he moved on to other subjects.

"That's the big thing, in the first five years, you think about it. But then you become part of it."

Still, it colors his work.

"I look very American for Europe. Somehow it influenced me, just by being here, by seeing different things without having to paint L.A. itself."

She's seen the light

Without Los Angeles, Stefanie Schneider wouldn't be an artist.

Art school in Germany had destroyed her interest in photography. Contemporary German photography "is not very emotional. It's very strict," she says. And if you work outside that aesthetic, "people kind of make fun of you."

She came to L.A. six years ago to help her cinematographer boyfriend produce a film. Infatuated with the space, color and light, she picked up an old Polaroid camera.

It's both the idea and actuality of Southern California that attract the 34-year-old artist. "The American West that you grew up with on TV, it's there and you can see it," she says. The dream of the West, and the nightmare, are primary elements in her large-scale color photographs.

All her work is shot in Los Angeles or the desert.

"It seems much brighter," she says of the Southern California light, by phone from Berlin, where she develops her oversized Polaroids.

"For a European it's very different. The desert has so much space, it's so clean, and the colors are clear and brilliant. In Europe, I couldn't do this work." In Germany, she says, "the main color is gray"

And, whereas Europe is sturdy, lasting centuries, Schneider sees impermanence in her adopted city.

"Tomorrow, everything can be gone. Somehow, I like it. It doesn't make people so arrogant. I guess there's a little bit of fear, always."

Getting a gallery in L.A. was as accidental as starting to shoot again. At a party of German emigres she met a former ambassador who with Susanne Vielmetter of Los Angeles Projects was planning an exhibition of work by L.A.-based German artists. She is now represented by Vielmetter.

Schneider likes California's "might-be happy endings, the deserts and blue skies, magic hour and, of course, the palm trees, not natural to the place," she writes via e-mail. "I guess place means everything to me."

Schneider spends six to eight weeks every year in Europe, where it's more affordable to develop and print her images and where she's represented by two galleries.

"L.A. is home, here is just the working condition -- the post-production," she says of Berlin. "I never felt comfortable in Germany. Everything has to be a certain way."

In Los Angeles, "nobody cares, and you're free," she says. "You leave the plane and you start breathing."

The freeway as social interchange

Yutaka Sone headed East from Tokyo.

At first, he considered moving to New York, where he is represented by the David Zwirner Gallery. But ultimately, the California climate, the mountains and the schools for his two kids became persuasive reasons for him to stay.

After arriving four years ago, he began having conversations with Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, about his experience of the place, and "Jungle Island" was commissioned to address his experience as an emigre.

The 37-year-old artist knew he wanted freeways in the work. He began studying interchanges, measuring the height of the overpasses and the width between the pillars. Using video and aerial photographs, he mapped houses, gardens, empty lots and trees, and then he built foam and cardboard models.

An affordable stonecutter in southern China (who has never seen an L.A. freeway, let alone traveled to the U.S.) translated the models into marble.

L.A. has no symbolic center, he says, from his spot in the BMW's backseat. "Everybody can draw New York or Paris. I can draw the center of Paris. But L.A., what is L.A.?"

Freeway junctions, he decided. Where private people in private automobiles interact in a big, public way.

"I found how beautiful intersections are," Sone says. "I understand, this is the beauty of California, I got it," he says. "I think the intersection is a new symbol for the independent society."

Spending time with him is like inhabiting a graphic novel; he punctuates his observations with sound words: bang, swish, pow. It's a universe where trees talk, and freeways become marble monuments in the jungle.

As the BMW approaches the intersection of the Pasadena and Santa Monica freeways near Staples Center, Sone cries out: "We're in the sculpture now."

A few weeks later, the crates containing the carved blocks of marble have arrived at the Geffen. Yutaka and three assistants are working in the still-empty space where green paint on the floor suggests the outline of an island. The Canary Island palms, banana trees and gigantic birds of paradise that make the jungle have yet to arrive. (Sone picked the plants -- audition style -- after talking to them.)

The jungle will disorient people, says Schimmel.

"It's the same reality of the city," Sone says. "When you're in one junction, you cannot see other junctions. That's really important to me. For my art. Between the junctions, you have the chance to lose the way."

Like life, he says, "you get lost and found."

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