The mysterious Internet, a computerized environment once inhabited only by government scientists, is becoming more and more consumer-friendly. Although the cyberhighway can be jammed with trivia, its potential is enormous--particularly in the field of visual arts, which can be lonely territory.

Off the Highway, a show of photographs at Rule Modern and Contemporary, is one of the first artistic side trips off the Internet. Although the exhibit contains very little computerized art, and the photos--mostly conventional silver or platinum prints and the like--arrived at the gallery via regular mail, it offers a glimpse into a virtual conference room in which artists can share views without leaving home.

The photographers represented hail from around the country; they "met" through America OnLine's Kodak Fine Arts Photography Forum. When the forum turned into a cyber-salon, complete with camaraderie, local photographer Mark Sink decided to turn the talk into action. "Many thought the computer age would destroy our sense of community," says Sink. "Instead, people with common interests found a pool of millions that they can draw from."

Sink viewed samples of forum members' art on AOL's electronic bulletin board, then organized a show from slides sent in response to an Internet call for entries. "When we finally got together at the opening," Sink says, "it was like meeting family, although it was sometimes a surprise--the real person was so different from what we imagined."

These virtual friends and artists make pictures in a wide variety of styles, from mainstream landscapes to the out-there political commentary of Kenneth Hayden, whose hilarious and spooky "Kent State" series includes Polaroid photo-transfers of toy plastic soldiers shooting toy plastic college students.

Only a few of these works actually play off the computer's ability to manipulate images, however. Gerry Ponterio began "Rampage" as a photo-collage of a train station and a lonely girl, then superimposed the text of some on-line chat before copying the double exposure as a silver gelatin print; the banal Internet "messages" underscore the bleakness of Ponterio's urban viewpoint. Mark Katzman's iris print, "Talset," also uses the graphics on a computer chatline screen as a visual overlay, veiling a picture of a girl covering her eyes. Surprisingly, the combination almost makes the girl look like an exotic princess covered with lace.

California's Jock Sturges is the most famous of the photographers included in the exhibit. The daring Sturges's wholesome nudes once shocked the nation, but here they have an almost nostalgic air, like art of a lost golden age. The father, mother and children in the sun-bleached "Family deSaxce" are clearly related, but their formal poses, remote and separate on a windswept beach, make a powerful statement about the isolation of the modern family.

Anne Arden McDonald's surreal staged self-portraits, all untitled, touch on the mystical nature of woman and experience. One shows her seated, as if in a trance, surrounded by a ring of fire in an ancient ruin; in another, she appears miraculously suspended among the overgrown vines and rotting timbers of an abandoned greenhouse. These photographs seem to capture an alternative reality, as though they were snapped with an intuitive camera. Another master of mist and moment, Kerik Koulis conjures up ethereal views of atmospheric woodlands and moving water in his aged-looking platinum prints. (Koulis uses a large-format glass-negative "view" camera almost a century old.) "Ice House Road in Fog," a dark vision of a lonely two-lane blacktop, shows a dim light approaching through the haze--but in this shadowy portrayal, whether it is the saving light of companionship or a sign of coming danger remains unclear.

As does the clouded future of the information highway. But judging from this display, it's moving in the right direction.

Off the Highway, through February 25 at Rule Modern and Contemporary, 1801 Wynkoop, 298-1310.