At the tender age of 29, sculptor John Van Alstine already has established himself as a bright and versatile new star in the firmament of the contemporary art world -- in Washington and beyond. His dramatic new show of stone-and-steel sculptures at the Osuna Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, suggests why.

Now a professor of sculpture at the University of Maryland, Van Alstine was lucky enough -- and talented enough -- to launch his career from the top when curator Howard Fox included him in the 1979 Hirshhorn "Directions" show -- "brute sculpture" division. That suite of work, entitled "Nature of Stone," consisted of large slabs of raw quarried granite held in gravity-defying tilts by interlocking forged steel bars. The excitement generated by these pieces -- "Torque IV," on view here, is a particularly fine example -- is in their complexity, the ingenious interdependence of the parts. Like the sprawling floor-piece "Boundary," "Torque IV" looks perfectly serene until the viewer realizes that each piece is held together solely by the weight of its own massive stones. Move one element even slightly and the whole thing will fall apart.

"I'm using an age-old sculptural material, but in a new way," explains Van Alstine, pointing out that rather than chipping away at stones in the manner of his artistic predecessors, he's using their mass and weight -- usually secondary considerations -- as his chief expressive element. Weight and balance also are what hold the newer works in this show together -- a series of tall, totem-like forms made from mica-flecked chunks of granite cradled in tall, stilt-like, black steel platforms. Though the artist protests that these "totems" intend no anthropomorphic allusions, most of them inevitably -- and very effectively -- conjure thoughts of hooded presences. "Mantel Arch II" comes closest to sustaining its purely formalist intent, though even here the two delicately balanced stones seem to be reaching out to each other for a kiss.

Last winter Van Alstine also made his debut as a photographer in a witty and provocative show of color photographs at the Henri Gallery -- typical American landscapes seen through a 2-D easel (outlines only) fashioned from steel and stuck in the ground at various sites to frame his images. "They came from living in the West and trying to deal with that landscape," says the artist, who hails from upstate New York, but taught in Laramie, Wyo., until last year. Some of his photographs can be seen in Osuna's back room. The show continues through Oct. 9.

Wacky Figures of Bronze

At Diane Brown, 406 7th St. NW, New York artist Martin Silverman, 31, is also showing sculpture that makes nontraditional use of a highly traditional medium -- bronze. In this show Silverman is showing chunky, often clunky figures of ordinary folks -- the dominant character being a sort of contemporary "everyman" in a blue business suit, red tie and hat. He looks considerably more like a primitive folk-art carving in wood than the timeless bronze-casting he is. After all, "The Thinker" is cast in bronze, not to mention the dozens of other noble works by Rodin now filling the National Gallery East Wing. The brightly colored patinas on these figures are downright wacky, and would probably set Rodin spinning in his grave.

The informality of the subject matter, as well as the homespun style, seems at odds with a medium so often used to immortalize great victories, dead heros, generals on horseback. Instead, what we have here is the man in the business suit, casually walking down the street deep in conversation with his wife, his baby perched on his back; the same man, still wearing his hat, engaged in a passionate embrace with a woman who may or may not be his wife; and that man, yet again, now nuzzling the neck of a nude woman -- clearly not his wife -- in a work entitled "The Businessman."

Despite all these contradictions -- and no doubt in part because of them -- these works can be wholly captivating, and "Guardian Angel," a man in full stride balanced on a subway turnstile, is memorable. There are other works, however, where appendages have been so badly rendered and poorly attached as to suggest not deliberate naivete' but incompetence. A small figure of a dancer is pure visual mush, and should have been edited out. The show continues through Oct. 8.

Photos and Prinst

The recent first anniversary celebrations not withstanding, the only other art now worth looking at in the gallery-filled building called 406 is the new portfolio of prints by urban realist Richard Estes at the Kornblatt Gallery and a fine show of photographic portraits by the famed Yousuf Karsh, which will be on view through Oct. 31 at the Lunn Gallery. Enlarged pores abound, but they grace some of the most interesting noses of modern times, from Winston Churchill to Ernest Hemingway, from Albert Schweitzer to Muhammad Ali.