Trick's a treat

Words like "amazing" and "wondrous" have been so overused that now they're just a tad more meaningful than "neat" or "cool." The boss' new haircut isn't merely nice, it's fabulous. A fancy meal doesn't just taste good, it's spectacular. The words are cheapened, making it much more difficult to sound sincere while describing something of awe using the words Messrs. Webster and Roget designate for such situations.

With that said, Natural Deceits, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's exhibition of contemporary Texas artists, is extraordinary, fascinating, and marvelous. No, really. It gathers new and recent works from some of the Lone Star State's young (and not so young) bucks with the belief that the balances between man and nature hold many surprises.

The exhibition begins simply, with two works by Vernon Fisher. One wall holds a sink draped in black. From one stance, the dark object looks like a towel, but from another the splotch morphs into a man's silhouette. Across the room a quote about paranoia is dabbed with Fisher's fly figurines. They look so real, it's easy to imagine that one step too close will send them swarming around the museum.

In the largest of the museum's galleries sits Leandro Erlich's "The Swimming Pool." The title reveals the joke, but not the punch line. Two sets of metal stairs lead to a wood-and-concrete-block deck surrounding the just-smaller-than usual swimming pool so that viewers can look down through the water. It's the same glistening sight swimmers disrupt with belly flops and cannonball jumps. The trick is that the water's only a few inches deep, blocked off from the rest of the pool with Plexiglas. People can also walk into the tank from a side entrance, stand next to the drain, and look up through the water.

In a darkened gallery next door, two of Nic Nicosia's films play on a loop. Middletown looks like a home video shot during a drive through his neighborhood. It was, but the bizarre moments he captures aren't accidents. The kid dragging a body behind his bike, the lady walking her dog, and the men in suits and 10-gallon hats are all actors staged to create a fake reality in a real place.

Even traditional techniques take an uncommon turn in Natural Deceits. Plein-air painter Julie Bozzi chooses her landscapes from within the city, cutting out buildings and roads to focus on patches of nature hidden in the urban sprawl. Her gouache studies show how man cuts bushes into unnatural shapes and how plants fight back by reclaiming what land they can.

Trees are a recurring theme here. Helen Altman nails real limbs together to create her own fake forest, and Lisa Ludwig coats another in sugar, silica, and resin to resemble an icy tree whose plump, perfect cherries fell frozen onto the snow below. Called "Heaven," it looks like a portal into a fairy-tale land. Its peaceful beauty is calming, which makes stepping into the next gallery more shocking. Inside, Erick Swenson's small lamb/dog/flop-eared creature is being pulled off the ground by a sinister black-and-red vampire cape wrapped around its tail. Four lights hit the animal where its lone foot touches the ground, casting a pinwheel of shadows over the room.

But the greatest trick may belong to Kirk Hayes. His works look like collages made from blackboards, wood scraps, torn cardboard, construction paper, string, and found plastic objects. The grain of the wood and fuzzy, fraying edges of the cardboard are convincing, but they're wrong. Every piece is painted in oil on signboard, from the time-lapse study of a dead squirrel on a road to the two-reared pig. They may be painted, but they're definitely not beautiful.

Want pretty? Walk down Camp Bowie to the Kimbell Art Museum and pay $10 to look at Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family. The exhibition contains room after room of pretty stuff on loan from the Russian family. Natural Deceits isn't pretty. It's funny. It's smart. It's disturbing. But mainly it's amazing and wondrous.