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Times Staff Writer

COMMISSIONED public sculpture by Richard Serra has been proliferating in Southern California, and in a manner that is coming to represent a virtual anthology of his extraordinary forms.

The 42-ton torqued ellipse made from massive plates of curling, enveloping steel at UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center was unveiled in September. Next came the campanile-like tower, some 66 feet high, made from a twisting pentagram of rust-colored steel plates that crowns a plaza at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Now, for the downtown expansion of this city’s Museum of Contemporary Art into a historic railroad station, opening Sunday, six mammoth blocks of forged steel are lined up beneath a Mission Revival arcade adjacent to the new exhibition galleries. Each identical block measures 52 by 58 by 64 inches, and they alternate along a center line -- three on the left and three on the right. Framed by the arcade’s arches, each block rests on a different face.

Walking around the sculpture, the effect is remarkable. The 6-inch differences among the height, width and depth of the humanly scaled blocks are just large enough to allow a viewer to figure out the composition’s orderly structure. Not quite cubes, the steel tonnage seems to tumble freely along the covered arcade, flipping nimbly onto all six sides. It’s as if the uber-industrial material were lighter than air.

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The physically formidable sculpture, weighing in at a staggering 156 tons, looks visually effortless. Mind melds with matter, while chugging locomotives, clanging trolleys and luggage-toting passengers busily come and go at the train station. These dead-weight steel hunks become a powerful emblem of productive human capacity.

Serra’s masterful “Santa Fe Depot,” completed last summer and opening as part of the museum’s long-gestating expansion, was made by arguably America’s greatest sculptor. It is also a symbol of the care and thoughtful consideration that have gone into the larger museum project, initiated seven years ago. Embedded in its gritty site, Serra’s postindustrial work of art puts the emphasis on work. So does the new museum.

The $25-million expansion includes handsome new construction -- the three-story, nearly 16,000-square-foot Copley Building. But it also includes the Jacobs Building, an elegant adaptive reuse of the 1915 Santa Fe Depot baggage building, across Kettner Boulevard from the MCASD’s existing downtown outpost. (The museum’s main facility is in La Jolla.) New York architect Richard Gluckman designed them both. What’s interesting is the way the museum chose to divide the spaces.

The sleek new construction is entirely devoted to offices and program-support services, including an auditorium and a carpentry shop. By contrast, the refurbished historic building houses the galleries. There are four exhibition spaces, totaling slightly more than 10,000 square feet.

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Building new art galleries from scratch is a fraught proposition -- especially for contemporary art, whose future forms cannot be anticipated. New construction entails risk, but adaptive reuse seems almost guaranteed to succeed as gallery space -- and it certainly does here.

Why? In the former baggage hall, the high, wood-trussed ceilings, gruff concrete floors and wood-framed windows that let in abundant natural light have been brought back to life. The past is being reborn, albeit in a new guise. The depot has the aura of a working building, in other words, rather than a precious vitrine. Active rather than passive, it fits new art. A small studio for an artist-in-residence has even been included, tucked off to one side. (The venerable Robert Irwin, who will show several site-specific Light and Space installations in the downtown spaces next fall, is the first guest.) The MCASD leitmotif is “artists at work,” underscored by the building and the exhibition program.

The Geffen Contemporary, the much-loved Little Tokyo warehouse renovated two decades ago for L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, is the obvious American model for its new San Diego sibling. Oddly, though, that’s where the Los Angeles connection ends. The building debut features new work by artists from San Diego, New York, Europe and Latin America, charting an expansive course. But leaving out L.A. artists seems a tad provincial, even though it’s surely difficult for San Diego to be perceived as a mere satellite to a major art center just up the 5 Freeway.

The largest gallery features a newly commissioned installation by Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, which was still being assembled during a preview visit. Neto is suspending an enormous Lycra “net” from the rafters to nearly fill the 4,600-square-foot room. Sewn into the net are pendulous sacks, filled with hundreds of pounds of aromatic spices, such as pepper, cumin and turmeric.

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Neto’s work builds on the precedent of his late countryman, the installation pioneer Helio Oiticica (1937-80), whose work incorporated objects to touch, manipulate and even wear, and who often used sound and music as an unexpected element. Spices add another dimension. They articulate sculptural space through smell -- by turns bright, expansive, intimate or remote. Unaccustomed to using the olfactory sense in a gallery, one is surprised to be following one’s nose to determine spatial volume.

The Brazilian artist’s spice-space also has a distinctive sociopolitical dimension, given the European history of the spice trade as an engine that drove the so-called Age of Exploration into the New World. The sculpture’s drooping, dangling, organic sacks of colorful powder are strange fruits indeed, while an erotic dimension is contained within their breast-like and testicular forms.

In the large media gallery, the museum is showing a new joint acquisition, recently made with the Berkeley Art Museum, by Finnish filmmaker and video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. (She studied in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute in the early 1990s.) “The Hour of Prayer” is projected on four screens that stand on the floor in a gentle zigzag, like a Japanese folding screen. Its narrative does not flow from one panel to the next; instead, the screens gently fracture the simple story, keeping your eyes anxiously darting from side to side.

The projection is a meditation on mortality and grief, told as a memoir of the unexpected death of a beloved pet. Just 14 minutes long, the video is painted in long, relatively static scenes, which lend a stateliness to life’s mundane beauty. A potentially treacly tale, it retains the measure of melancholic dignity essential to keeping sentimentality on the side of genuine pathos rather than mawkish bathos.

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In a Copley Building stairwell, San Diego artist Roman de Salvo has installed a series of seven ornamental lighting sconces. They are cleverly fashioned from crude electrical conduits that normally would be hidden inside the walls of a modern building. Given the lingering phobia about ornament in architecture, there’s something quietly risque about this illuminated exposure.

Scottish artist Richard Wright decorated a high arched window between two galleries with a delicate, almost imperceptible linear web of gold leaf. Because of the building’s age, the glass surface is rippled rather than smooth, and the web accentuates the wrinkles. Wright’s Minimalist riff on an ecclesiastical rose window echoes the once-molten material’s original liquidity.

(A third commission -- one of Jenny Holzer’s familiar LED signs flashing her aphoristic “truisms” -- will rise up the Copley Building’s facade, but it was not available for preview. For the opening festivities, Holzer also plans a special series of nighttime projections on buildings around the city, through Monday.)

If the Wright is slight, a small show of masterworks promised to the museum packs a concentrated wallop. Pledged from San Diego’s Farris Collection and housed in a gallery named for the late Melinda Farris Wortz, a prominent L.A. art critic, it includes covetable paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

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There is also a wonderfully eccentric 1949 Clyfford Still -- jagged patches of gray paint through which bits of red, yellow and blue flash like primary-colored lightning bolts amid roiling storm clouds. Still is a notoriously uneven painter, and this unusual example is just the sort of surprise that sets off the classic Warhol diptych of Liz Taylor and the august orange-and-red Newman “zip” painting across the way. It works.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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MCASD Downtown

Where: 1100 & 1101 Kettner Blvd., San Diego

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays through Tuesdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; closed Wednesdays

Ends: May 27

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Price: Free noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; thereafter, $5 to $10 but free for those 25 and younger

Contact: (858) 454-3541; www.mcasd.org


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