"Armor de Amor Agave Art for the 21st Century" at five15 Gallery: Artist Carrie May Kreyche pairs natural objects with manmade materials to make humorous, yet profound, observations about the world around us. In her Suckulent series, a baby-bottle nipple is surrounded by rings of dried cactus leaves. They point inward like arrows, forming a visual bull's eye that takes aim at the "nature versus nurture" debate. Kreyche's grasp of the human psyche is also apparent in the exhibit's title piece, an abstract sculpture resembling an otherworldly ballerina wearing a thorny agave tutu. Her soft, feathered inner core is protected in the same way that we guard our hearts. Check out Hidden Slave Girl, a Japanese-inspired scroll crafted out of used raffle tickets sewn together and decorated with lotus blossoms. Close examination of the newsprint text behind the flowers reveals a disturbing secret world within this traditional society. Admission is free. Through February 24. 515 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, 602-256-0150, www.515arts.com.
"Celebrating Freedom: The Art of Willie Birch" at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: New Orleans is colorful and quirky, like that eccentric relative who insists on wearing turquoise hats with leopard-print spandex. So it's no shock that charcoal drawings that cast The Big Easy in shades of gray are a disappointment. Birch's topographical shading technique causes his scenes of funeral parades and Haitian voodoo rituals to appear flat and lifeless. In Free to Be, four drag queens in towels, hair turbans, and jeweled necklaces share cocktails at the Southern Decadence gay-pride festival. Their presumably ruby-red lips and heavily shadowed eyes beg for color. Despite the aesthetic issues, Birch does have a flair for capturing the unseen realities of pre-Katrina New Orleans. In one poignant drawing, a homeless man sleeps beneath two symbols of slavery: a cannon and a magnolia tree. It's a stirring reminder of the city's dark past. Admission is $7; $5 students. Through April 29. 7374 E. Second St., Scottsdale, 480-994-2787, www.smoca.org.
"After Dark: 100 Years of the Evening Dress" at Phoenix Art Museum: Your old prom dress probably isn't a masterpiece, but formal wear by Oscar de la Renta and Gianni Versace can be as desirable as a Rembrandt. Phoenix Art Museum's exhibit of 30 gowns, selected from its cache of more than 6,000 dresses, illustrates how evening wear retains a timeless quality while subtly reflecting the social and political climate of an era. Admission is $10 for adults; $8 students and seniors; free to all on Tuesday evenings. Through April 1. 1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-257-1222, www.phoenixartmuseum.org.
Kay Tuttle and Kristen Bauer at Modified Arts: Betty Friedan's 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique, a study of women's dissatisfaction with traditional roles, paved the way for artists like Kristen Bauer and Kay Tuttle. Bauer's mixed-media paintings depict dwellings that resonate with abandonment and loneliness. In Plan B; the Long Road Home, stick figures of a man, woman, and pigtailed little girl (presumably the artist's daughter) are trapped outside an empty home stenciled with feminine patterns reminiscent of antique wallpaper. Tuttle's Grandmother's Purse #2 carries a similar sadness. Unbroken wishbones lay inside the green clutch bag, each one symbolizing a dream that would never come true. Look for Walking Dress, a Victorian illustration of a gentlewoman in a bustle gown whom Tuttle has transformed into a powerful, man-eating spider. It'll have arachnophobes running for the door, but Friedan would be proud. Admission is free. Through February 11. 407 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, 602-462-5516, www.modified.org.
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Dagne Hanson at West Valley Art Museum: It's difficult to reduce an artist's entire life down to a single room of works, but WVAM does an excellent job in illustrating local painter Dagne Hanson's personal and professional growth. Her efforts are traced from early charcoal nudes to more recent, emotionally charged works like her Suzie series, which depicts a wistful young woman with stringy red hair. Hanson's strength lies in her exceptional ability to capture the essence of a subject without depicting full detail. In Miserable Mother Series #2: None of Your Business, rapid brushstrokes and opposing hues of crimson and green provide a striking visual representation of a woman's wrath. This is one mama you don't want to trifle with. Admission is $7, $2 for students. Through Feb. 11. 17420 N. Avenue of the Arts, Surprise, 623-972-0635, www.wvam.org.