Victor Pacheco moved to Rochester, N.Y., years ago, and saw signs on lawns about fracking. He didn't know what that was, so he went online and did some research. What he found fascinated him.
"I want to explore the process and share it with people. It's not like 'you shouldn't do this'," the artist said, wagging his finger. "My work isn't activist-driven. I'm just looking at the process."
However, it isn't entirely non-critical. "On the one hand, some of this is exciting that humans can do this. But on the other hand, it's scary how it affects nature," Pacheco said. "Every time I look into things like this, it's the same narrative ... For every progress there are consequences."
An exhibit of Pacheco's work, "Extraction," is up now at Real Art Ways in Hartford. The title of the show has a dual meaning. The subject matter is extraction — fracking, offshore oil rigs, natural gas exploration — and the materials he uses are largely petroleum-based.
Three sculptures along the righthand wall are made from high-density polystyrene. Pacheco found the expensive but dangerous material sitting by a road marked "free." He took it home, molding it into faux chunks of shale run through with natural and manmade cracks. On the tops of the mounds perch ladder-like structures that resemble extraction plants.
"I had to wear a respirator and work with gloves and clothes that I took off right after. The material is potentially carcinogenic," said Pacheco, who grew up in Hartford and now is based in Worcester, Mass.
On his 2-D work, Pacheco uses Tyvek paper, which is petroleum-based, and graphite, an extracted material that can be toxic to miners. He focuses on fracking but also on gas storage tanks, natural-gas pipelines and offshore rigs. The top halves of his canvases show what the naked eye can see, and the bottom what it can't.
"I want to show what happens underground," he said. "These are things that are interesting, but also dangerous, and not for the public to look at."
Pacheco's show was curated by Peter Waite, who has known Pacheco since he was a student in the Hartford school system. Waite also curated "RealUnreal," the four-artist show in Real Art Ways' large gallery.
"All of the works in the show that deal with images of the natural world. They look real, but they are not real," said Waite, a longtime Hartford-area artist and educator, who now lives in Glastonbury.
Hilary Brace's small, exquisitely detailed drawings — in charcoal on polyester film — look like something "only an astronaut on the outer rings of Saturn might experience," Waite said, and are drawn entirely from Brace's imagination. They meld imagery resembling formations of clouds and gases, waterfalls, caves and earthquake fault lines to create vaporous terrains that could not possibly exist.
Linda Darling's approach dwells in a different headspace, a scientific one. Darling's oil paintings are based on Apollonian gaskets, fractals formed by circles within circles. She lays the images on top of them, coloring the picture into the circles. Her subjects take on the topics of how nature transforms nature and how man transforms nature.
Thom Sawyer's oil paintings of the Potomac River are done quickly, en plein air, capturing rushing water, floating sticks, leaves, rocks. His 15-piece collection of monoprints of Mount Saint Helens were also done on-site, with a printing press hauled out into the open air on the back of a truck.
Dennis Pinette's oils reflect his fascination with forest fires, sandstorms and extreme weather. He sketches on-site and then returns to the studio to paint what he has seen. Waite and Pinette grew up together, and both delivered the North Adams Transcript as boys. "We had to deliver it no matter the weather," Waite said. "Maybe that influenced him."
Waite said the common thread in the works is "whether you're working with your imagination, scientific theory, direct observation, or a combination of direct observation or imagination, the world is an amazing place."
Also at the gallery is "Collision Repair," a three-piece installment by John Spray. The first is a video called "Government Plaques," a shifting display of government symbols. Spray also created a banner of 52 national flags, representing nations in which the United States has staged military events since the end of World War II. The third is a sound installation in the venue's restrooms, of actors reading the U.S. Constitution with every fifth word removed. "It becomes a strange voice poem," Waite said.
"REALUNREAL" AND "COLLISION REPAIR" will be at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St. in Hartford, until Oct. 5. "Victor Pacheco: Extraction" will be up until Sept. 7. The opening reception for all three exhibits is on Saturday, Aug. 2, from 6 to 8 p.m., during Creative Cocktail Hour. Details: www.realartways.org.