Forty years ago, an exhibition like this might have been called "New Talent." Today, we need a handle that's more visceral - like "Fresh Meat," the title of CEPA Gallery's mammoth exhibition of 45 New York City artists curated by Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock.

Despite the title - whose various tasteless connotations I won't even entertain - this is a show with a preponderance of artists of pointed intelligence, smart conceptualizing skills and - this surprised me, given the title - overall good taste. Some of the work is political (The Atlas Group's video ". . . A History of Car Bombs in the Lebanese Wars"), and there are many among the still photographs that document fairly distressing social circumstances (Saul Metnick's compilations of photos of abandoned, burn-out cars).

But as many works revel in some incidental breakdown in the system (Adam Henry's video of a flickering light in a United Nations office window) or reframe very familiar experiences (Dylan Chandker's fastidious investigation of a city block in which multiple photographs are pieced together to make a 6-by-12-foot frame).

Like Chandler, many artists conceptualize reality, while others re-conceptualize found images. In the latter category is Christian Nugyen, who inflates the dollar bill's great seal to immense proportions, transforming it into a tapestrylike landscape. The socially critical point isn't all that clear but it's unsettling to see the words "Novus Ordo Seclorum" ("a new world has begun") writ large at this dangerous juncture in U.S. history.

Some of this conceptualizing is tedious. Kaitlin Kehnemyi's "Bed" is an act of extended self-observation in which the artist teasingly arranges narrow vertical snippets from photographs of bedroom activities. The slats purposely hide as much as they reveal, while the coyness of the presentation should put anyone beyond caring.

More than a few photographers show this weakness for concept-driven art presented in banal formal terms. Making ink silhouettes from photographs of walking people seems like a fruitful idea, but in Mario Muller's hands the result is merely conventional. Penelope Umbrico's images of open doorways found in mail-order catalogs and isolated as tall-format digital prints admirably adhere to preset rules.

But visually they are like the work of 10,000 other photographers dedicated to reducing the illusionistic field to a buzzing haze of pointillistic dots.

One of the best conceptually based works isn't a photograph at all. Matt Bakkom has placed blazingly artificial orange day lilies in a "pot" constructed from tightly wound loops of 35mm film print. On the edge of the print you can read a title: "Apocalypse Now, reel-2."

Another piece is striking for the direct message contained within a simple concept. Jennifer Dalton has simply taken the tiny, in-magazine photographs of Artforum contributors from the last five years and strung them out horizontally in two rows, men on top, women below.

The male row runs about 15 feet; the females are lucky to hit four. You get the message: Men are still calling the shots.

Few in the show use the camera for the old-fashioned purpose of recording a visually captivating view. There's a gorgeous C-print of "Central Park" by Eileen Quinlan and portraits of New York City subway conductors by Felicia McCoy (which in the conceptually heavy context look almost archaic).

But everyone else needs a little rigging, it seems.

But that doesn't prevent the best of them from going after that most ancient of reasons for doing art - beauty.

The fact that Tina Hejtmanek shoots her landscapes from moving cars is incidental in the face of the delicately structured poetry of her images.

Matthias Geiger, in an elaborate diptych, makes exacting visual parallels between a mountain landscape and a man wearing a camouflaged outfit.

The artist writes that the diptych "raises questions about reality, the metaphysical and interdependence by implying different philosophical ideas. . . ."

OK, but may I interject that the photographs are also staggeringly gorgeous to look at.•