Something new seems to be happening in Washington art--not a new style, but a new mood. In "Options: 1983," the latest new talent survey at the Washington Project for the Arts, there is a pervasive sense of angst that is about as different from the formal pleasures of Washington color painting as art can be.

The wide interest in neoexpressionism may well be at the root of this phenomenon, and several artists here have clearly subscribed to that passionate, ominous mode. But even those who are working in highly individual forms have taken a new interest in the darker side of the human condition and the solemnity of our times. It makes for a stirring show.

The German influence is explicit in Steven Foster's powerful work, "The History of the World," in which a Hitler-like figure sits in a battle-scarred setting, taut with a sense of his approaching doom. The central image, constructed from cutout cardboard and wood and old photographs, is surrounded by German words, among them "Der Reichstag in Flammen." Even more poignant--for less specific reasons--is his "Despondent Frankenstein" in which a man sits with a gun to his forehead. For the sheer power of his work, Foster is the find of this show.

A close second is Catherine Batza, whose dark, scary figures in charcoal are being terrorized in ways that are ambiguous yet palpable to the most casual viewer.

The same sense of terror is at the heart of several lesser neoexpressionist paintings, but it has great effect in the photographs of Reid S. Baker, who turns the face of a heavily made-up woman into a visual scream.

A new awareness of world events also is much a part of this show. Though overly influenced by Max Beckmann, Ruth Bolduan's painting "Drowned Woman" is a haunting recollection of the Air Florida crash in Washington last winter. Frank Pollara's brightly colored, naive style only masks for a moment the true subject of his tapestry-like paintings: the murder of nuns in El Salvador in "Driving out the Gorillas," and the suffering of the poor in "Trickling Down." Pollara, a retired union executive, began painting seriously only two years ago. Happily, at WPA, you don't have to be under 30 to be a new talent.

Social comment of a gentler sort is at the heart of Sidney Lawrence's provocative three-dimensional constructions made from old wood and found objects, though there is a frenzy at the heart of works such as his punning "Class Diptych" that keeps eyes riveted. Frenzy seems at the heart, as well, of the paintings of John Figura, the only important abstract expressionist in the show.

Despite the strong neoexpressionist trend, many good artists have held to their own course, making quiet, evocative objects: the small, theater-inspired constructions of Maria Velez, for example, or Andrew Kreiger's mysterious boxed narratives, or Yuriko Yamaguchi's wood sculptures with rubbed, painted surfaces that have the look of ethnographic relics. Gail Rebhan's photographic sequences rouse a delicious sense of domestic life, in which rumpled beds and sofas take on a life of their own. Patrick Craig's pattern-paintings are vigorous and handsome.

As far as technique is concerned, not much is new, except Lenore Winters' painting-without-a-canvas, made from delicately colored abstract plaster shapes attached to the wall with Velcro. Artists work with everything from carved slate to bits of old clothing and mangled wire fence. Only two works are dated: a conceptual piece in which a telescope focuses on two neoclassical statues adorning the National Archives Building and looks like an antique itself; and an elaborate autobiographical installation with a real bed, background music, twinkling Christmas lights and slides on the ceiling. What's new in this show is not in the media, but in the message.

"We were both astonished at the numbers and the quality of work," says artist Joe Shannon, who, with sculptor Ed Love, undertook the gigantic task of scanning 200 sets of slides, trudging to 80 different studios and ultimately making the hard choice of the 30 artists in this show. "We found whole houses full of artists we didn't know about--from Reston to outlying New York Avenue to the inner city. It was like going out to a weed patch and finding pomegranates."

They've brought back a weed or two as well, but nothing like the infestation of cronyism that choked off the good intentions behind "10+10+10," the Corcoran's ill-fated emerging-talent show last year. There is one blatant case of cronyism here--a dentist who works on the teeth of half the artists in town, including one of the judges.

"It's our most important function to support and encourage so-called 'emerging' artists in the early stages of their exhibiting careers," says WPA director Al Nodal. That function has been carried out in several previous shows, but this may be the best yet.

The results, of course, have much to do with the special sensibilities of the judges (whose works are not on view). Shannon's paintings are filled with angst and barely suppressed frenzy, and Love's sculpture has never shirked the facts of real life. Says Shannon: "This is our choice, but other judges could have made another good show from what we saw. One thing is for sure: Washington is a very vital place."

The show continues at 404 Seventh St. NW through March 5.