Artist Sheds New Light on Sculpture

Article excerpt

Jim Sanborn may be Washington's premier sculptor, but many of his masterpieces are in places as far-flung as Japan and Nevada.

This summer, he will head for Cork, Ireland, to create more sculpture, with light and space as his primary media. As part of the Sirius Project, which has been host to such luminaries as environmental art sculptor James Turrell, Mr. Sanborn will project light images on rock formations, ruined castles and Stone Age megalithic rocks.

Light and archaeological references always have been crucial to Mr. Sanborn's work. Two years ago, he began traveling to Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona to project light grids and other geometric forms (triangles and squares) onto massive rock formations. He also lit them with searchlights and photographed them by moonlight.

"It's a purer, more dramatic way of showing nature," he explains.

He created temporary installations at the sites, photographing them with a 4-by-5-inch lens camera with up to 30-minute exposures. Mr. Sanborn wanted to use light to modify, but not change, the landscape. He exhibited the photographs at Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery in December. Reno's Nevada Museum of Art has just bought six of them.

Next year, his Ireland work will be displayed at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York City.

But for now, there's the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "Recent Acquisitions, 1992-1996" show, opening Wednesday.

Mr. Sanborn's "Kryptos II" (1992) is among the exhibit's 100 paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces by such artists as Joseph Beuys, Chuck Close, Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol. The piece is based on his most celebrated work to date, the 1990 granite, quartz, lodestone, copper, encoded text and water "Kryptos" at the CIA's headquarters in Langley.

Like the CIA piece, the Hirshhorn's "Kryptos II" lives up to its name, which is Greek for "hidden." It uses petrified wood, curved-text copper screens and different languages - here Cyrillic and Latin - to project an enigmatic message.

"I like the whole idea of its mystery, and that it depends on light," Hirshhorn director Jim Demetrion says of the sculpture. "The light passes through the cutout letters, projecting their images on the floor."

* * *

Mr. Sanborn has been delving into rocks and earth since he was a youth digging up dinosaur fossils on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He chuckles when he remembers storing a dinosaur's 8-foot-long skull and part of its backbone in his parents' Alexandria driveway.

The 6-foot-8, bearded sculptor, now in his early 50s , has always lived with art and ideas.

His father was an artist and director of exhibitions for the Library of Congress, his mother was a pianist and photo researcher. He was able to sculpt in his father's studio. His father would take him along when installing shows and to exhibition openings. The library's poets- and artists-in-residence visited frequently at their home in Alexandria.

At JEB Stuart High School in Fairfax County, he was more interested in archaeology and digging up dinosaur fossils than in getting good grades. He got his chance to study both when he attended Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and took part in an art and archaeology semester program at Oxford University.

At Oxford, he became interested in carving while working at archaeological digs and researching Romanesque-period sculpture.

"It's been all downhill from there," he jokes.

Along the way, he picked up a graduate degree in sculpture from Brooklyn's prestigious Pratt Institute. He spent the next nine years as an artist-in-residence at the National Park Service's Glen Echo Park, a former amusement park. He taught classes, made sculpture and lived in a converted swimming-pool tank on the grounds, where he had access to government surplus materials, such as bronze, aluminum and even used space capsules. …