THE CORCORAN GALLERY has rounded up some fresh faces and fresh ideas from the hinterlands for its "39th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting." To simplify the task of representing this country's artists, the show focuses on 17, from seven states in the Midwest.

Only occasionally can we detect regionalism in the subject matter -- twisters, small-town streets and flat lakeland. The painters come from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. But in the imaginative potpourri of images that make up this show, the state that really interests them is the state of mind.

Following a national trend, they shy away from abstraction. Instead, they use the human figure, pregnant with psychological or social message.

Dennis Nechvatal paints huge, post-pop portraits. "The people don't even exist," he says. "The big one is maybe my wife, but she doesn't look like that. And 'Youth' is a euphemism for an ideal." "The new youth," Nechvatal believes, "is going to change the world."

Too big to avoid, they confront the viewer. In "Self Portrait Diptych," Nechvatal paints himself as handsome film star with rakish mustache; in the companion portrait, his eyes are unchanged, but an animalistic mask covers his face with repeated patterns insistent as drums.

The artists in the show range in experience from those like Nechvatal -- who is 36 and paints full time in Madison, Wisconsin, and exhibited in a one-man show in New York last year -- to John Broenen, 25, who has "just barely" shown, he says, in his hometown of Milwaukee.

In one self-portrait, Broenen looks behind as if regarding himself in a mirror; his muscles are masses of aggressive paint streaks. In another, he sees himself lying in a coffin-shaped bed in his boyhood room, where a houseplant is strangling him. (He moved out last year.)

One of the more widely known artists in the show, Chicago's Ed Paschke paints electronic rainbows of armed cowboys and terrorists and a clapping jazz man -- compelling video images with a blurred, silkscreened quality.

Another Chicagoan, Robert Lostutter, has painted tiny watercolors that, although diminuitive, are the stars of the show, making no less of a social statement than Paschke's large works. With the skill of a manuscript illuminator, Lostutter delicately -- almost microscopically -- paints perfect jewels of man-birds, posing and preening with feathered heads and slate-colored human noses. How delicate, too, is the balance of nature, warns Lostutter.

Meanings become more ambiguous in Jim Nutt's slick and sassy portraits of comic-strip- like people caught in "private, usually ridiculous moments." This series of distorted faces -- seen through a porthole, perhaps -- is entirely black, white and grey.

Things really come apart in Peter Huttinger's "The (un)Related Drawings." They're viscera-gone-wild, nightmares of birth and death. The tenuous drawings resemble illustrations in biology texts, but look closer: The animal is consuming itself. And don't be fooled by the cheery bunny face: It's a contorted female body with breasts for ears.

THE 39TH BIENNIAL EXHIBITION OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN PAINTING -- At the Corcoran Gallery of Art through April 7.