Karin Apollonia Müller

By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer June 15, 2009

For at least a decade, Karin Apollonia Müller has been making savvy photographs that consider the disquieting contradictions of ordinary experience, a project for which Southern California has been her muse. Müller divides her time between Los Angeles and Germany, where she was born (in Heidelberg) in 1963. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see a place with fresh eyes, because she understands the perplexing city in ways that deeply resonate.

Her seven recent large-scale photographs at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery are as fine as any she‘s made. One reason is that she begins with an array of events — wildfires, mudslides, freeway catastrophes and such — that are L.A. clichés and that also make the city the nation‘s reigning symbol of imminent apocalypse. (Had there been a recent earthquake, it no doubt would have figured in her pictures.) But the resulting work is less journalistic or documentary than cinematic, even though she doesn‘t stage the scenes.

At the bottom of a large, sun-bleached panorama of devastating landslides in Laguna‘s hills, where many expensive and often ugly houses lie crumpled or teeter on the brink, a security fence rings the swimming pool of a modest but intact home. As the land indiscriminately swallows up civilization all around, the terra might not be as firma as we casually presume, but at least the children are protected from the harrowing specter of accidental drowning.
Visible threat is always more pressing than something we can‘t see, even if the invisible might be more hazardous. And that‘s just one detail from a photograph jampacked with incident. (It‘s 4 feet high and 5 feet wide.) Müller‘s best work asserts the power of the visual, teasing out ambiguous narratives that transcend localities and encompass larger truths.

Frequently she employs filters that cause the distinctive Southern California light to blanch the scene; what appears ordinary is at once strange and unsettling. The explicit, fast-paced drama of catastrophic events is leeched away in these nonmoving pictures, creating a visual space for reflection.

A magnificent pair of images show multicolored smoke billowing above Griffith Park, giving Tiepolo‘s glorious Venetian skies a run for their money. Weirdly, though, a tiny rescue helicopter glimpsed amid the conflagration‘s prismatic heavenly residue seems as charmingly whimsical as a dragonfly on a still life, warning of the perils of human vanity.

As you look at another scene — of cleanup after a vehicle fire adjacent to a downtown Hollywood Freeway onramp — several moments may pass before you notice a puzzling detail about the truck that burned, snarling traffic. Tall buildings line the background in America‘s densest urban enclave, but the calamitous truck was hauling hay.

The show‘s most captivating photograph records a routine auto accident at the downtown intersection of Broadway and Aliso Street. Behind it, the Hall of Justice dominates the scene in all its 1926 Beaux Arts glory. How the little car tipped over the big car is anybody‘s guess, but life around the collision continues without skipping a beat.

Müller‘s composition, however, pulls the rug out from under such complacency. An adjacent sunken freeway runs along the photograph‘s bottom edge, transforming the conventional streetscape into a thin veneer covering up a tough, brutal and hollow core. Given the nation‘s current social and political landscape, it is hard not to see Müller‘s trenchant recent photographs of apocalyptic mayhem as more than a simple record of life in L.A.

As conflagrations go, the Station fire that is roaring through the wilds of the Angeles National Forest and the settled precincts of adjacent neighborhoods seems especially strange. Has another of L.A.‘s increasingly commonplace wildfires been that huge — more than 25 miles across, from east to west, and 18 miles from north to south! — yet simultaneously so seemingly remote from the metropolis, except for those directly in its awful and erratic path?

What unites people downtown or in Culver City or in Monterey Park with those in Tujunga and La Cañada Flintridge, where the dangerous and devastating flames rage, is the smoke. Ethereal, ghostly smoke. In the morning it sits like fog in the canyons on the south side of the San Fernando Valley, before evaporating into daylight. Various websites feature time-lapse pictures of the ongoing catastrophe, and most focus on billowing, erupting gray clouds that appear positively nuclear.

Karin Apollonia Muller, a German-born photographer who has divided her time between L.A. and Europe for many years, has become the city‘s unofficial visual poet of ordinary urban catastrophe, including fires. The photograph here was made during a 2007 blaze in Griffith Park, and it too looks away from the action on the ground to isolate smoke as the primary subject of the visual field — disturbingly lovely, even somewhat heavenly in its soft chromatic gradations.

Look closely, though. A tiny rescue helicopter emerges from the photographic ether in the lower right quadrant. Like a little insect glimpsed on a too-lush flower in a slightly overripe 17th-century Dutch still life, it hums as a cautionary note about the eternal perils of human vanity.