If you don't know which way is north, Jim Sanborn's new sculpture show at Diane Brown will point the way. It also reaffirms the direction his career has taken in recent years: straight up.

Collectively titled "Lightning and Other Earthly Forces," these works continue Sanborn's quest to make visible the invisible forces of nature--in this case magnetism. The six sculptures in this show--as in the last--are built from large, roughly cut blocks of richly colored sandstone (red/ochre, gray and brown) meticulously stacked against the wall in tall rectangular configurations. What's new is the flurry of oversized stainless-steel compass needles suspended before them, all starchily aligned with the earth's magnetic force, pointing due north.

With some exceptions. For within several of these stacked stone sculptures is tucked a lump of black lodestone--humble magnetite ore that has become magnetized as a result of having been struck by lightning. (Lodestones provided the world's first compasses.) Buried in the rich, velvety brown rock of "Last Night's Strike" there is such a stone, and the compass needle that seems to levitate before it veers from true north to lock in its direction. Sanborn further enriches this piece--as well as others--by carefully manipulating the lights so as to shoot a lightning-bolt-shaped shadow at the lodestone, thus echoing the moment when it received its powers.

Throughout this show, Sanborn "draws" with shadow, often simultaneously suggesting bolts of lightning and flights of migrating birds. He also uses dramatic lighting to heighten the silent, meditative, almost reverent atmosphere that exudes from these works, suggesting that a large piece like "Invisible Forces," now installed in the corner of the gallery, might make good sense permanently set up in a small chapel. Conjuring the invisible forces of nature, after all, has been the goal of religious art for centuries. It is something Sanborn manages to do superbly with mere stone, steel and shadow.

The show continues at 406 Seventh St. NW through April 8. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6. Paintings by Robert Bates

If you drop in at Hom Gallery to see the strange little paintings of English artist Robert Bates, don't forget your glasses. Bates works in near-miniature scale--anywhere from 2 by 3 inches to 4 by 6 inches--in formats that recall medieval illuminated manuscripts, an impression reinforced by the use of gold leaf in the elaborate decorative borders.

But within these borders comes a surprise: The central images, all rendered in dense watercolor, are contemporary scenes--the artist's pregnant wife asleep on the grass under a threatening sky, or a young mother with a baby in her arms, posing in a garden. In the latter case, a delicate, flowery border reinforces the romantic mood. Such interplay between border and image is a crucial element in these works, and those images without borders are uninteresting indeed.

A romantic moodiness also pervades the nocturnal landscapes, though a sense of the surreal here begins to seep in. This tendency to surrealism emerges full-blown in the most recent--and one of the best--works: "Unexpected Ascension of an Ordinary Man in his Garden," in which a man in a business suit actually seems to be ascending from his garden into a moonlit sky. Here, as elsewhere, there is a certain clumsiness or primitivism in the rendering of figures, but that is no doubt intended to add to the tension between the elegant borders and the scenes within.

The show--Bates' first in America--opened last night and will continue at 2103 O St. NW, through April. Hours are 11 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Hand-Tinted Photographs

Hand-coloring photographs with special oil paints has been going on since photography was invented, though the practice faded somewhat with the onset of color film. Kathleen Ewing Gallery is currently examining the resurgence of interest in hand-tinging black-and-white images, and the show poses an interesting question: Why is so much of this stuff so uninteresting?

There are exceptions among the five photographers on view, the most notable among them being Washington's own Allen Appel, whose ongoing still-life "Flower Series" continues to provide rich, romantic images. The best work here is his: a small pot of flowers isolated in a field of thick, criss-crossed brushstrokes of gold paint. His polka-dotted nudes are less interesting. In fact, everything is less interesting unless the color adds more than just color--unless it actually transforms the work in some real way.

Patricia White of California is the only other photographer here who can be said to transform her images with color--a transformation so complete that these patterned, table-top still-lifes look more like silkscreen prints than what they are. By adding flat color, she confounds the illusion of depth that the photograph contained. Depth of the opposite sort--deep space--is the result of Atlanta's Jim Frazer's experiments with his homemade panorama camera, but the interest here is photographic, and color adds little if anything. The show continues through April 8 at 3243 P St. NW. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6.