"The Cultivated Desert: New Works by Ellen Wagener" at Mesa Arts Center: Ellen Wagener's gorgeous photorealistic pastels focus on Phoenix's undeveloped edges, fragile frontiers where wildness is tangible and mystical. Gigantic skies dwarf flat desert landscapes, and clouds tower like gods in her pieces. Granted, it's hard to get excited about painting that looks like photography in an age when we're numbed by hyper-realistic computer-generated imagery in everything from movies to TV commercials. But Wagener's supremely still pieces aren't about seeing the land so much as feeling its sublime presence -- and being better for the experience. Through Nov. 20. 1 E. Main St., Mesa, 480-644-6500, www.mesaarts.com.
Akio Takamori at ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center: Japanese-born Akio Takamori's envelope vases elevated ceramics from utile craft to expressive art in the early 1980s. The vessels' exteriors were human figures whose thoughts and passions were depicted on the vase's interior. This career retrospective shows 25 years of Takamori's work, from those vases to his recent figurative stoneware sculptures. One piece, Dance, shows a tall, 1950s-era G.I. dancing with a diminutive, kimono-clad Japanese woman. The towering soldier and the wary woman depict the uneasy history of relations between East and West in one brilliant, abbreviated stroke. Through Jan. 16. 10th St. and Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-965-2787, www.asuartmuseum.asu.edu.
Edward Luce and Karolina Sussland at the Trunk Space: Edward Luce of Davis, California, and Phoenix's own Karolina Sussland peek into sex subcultures in a trio of marvelous installations in this tiny but mighty space. Luce humorously surmises how gays connect in the hinterlands with a wall full of trucker hats emblazoned with logos keyed to the hanky code gay men once used to indicate their sexual interests. Sussland covers a wall with 29 lushly painted portraits of registered sex offenders whose mug shots she pulled from a Texas Web site. Their average appearance combined with her gorgeous brushstrokes add up to a creepy comment on the evil that lurks below the surface of things. Through Oct. 18. 1506 Grand Ave., Phoenix, 602-256-6006, www.thetrunkspace.com.
"Hector Ruiz: La Realidad (Reality)" at the Heard Museum: Phoenix artist Hector Ruiz fires a shot between the eyes of American values with wood carvings, block prints, and mixed-media assemblages that address racism, border issues and capitalism. A King Kong-size blonde crushes a hapless businessman in her manicured hands in Westernization, the papier-mâ;ché installation that's the show's centerpiece, and the U.S. suburbs are depicted as a sea of faceless hands reaching for more consumer goods in Escape Diversity. Ruiz's work is as subtle as a baseball bat, but whispered messages go unheard in an age when no one seems to be paying attention. Through March 2006. 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-252-8848, heard.org.
"HOME: Native People in the Southwest" at the Heard Museum: The Heard ends a yearlong celebration of its 75th anniversary by opening a huge new gallery that houses a larger and improved exhibition of Southwestern Native American art. The new exhibition organizes 2,000 objects by tribe instead of type, includes maps of each tribe's ancestral and modern lands, information about their history, and excerpts of interviews with living members of the tribe. The result is that HOME feels less like a showcase of treasures amassed on the cheap by rich white people and more like an explanation of the still-living cultures that produced them. Through 2020. 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-252-8848, heard.org.
Dale Chihuly at Bentley Projects: Before Dale Chihuly became the godfather of art glass, he worked as a commercial fisherman to earn money for grad school. He brings this memory of the world beneath the waves to the glass works on exhibit at Phoenix's premier contemporary art gallery. Eight undulating pieces that look like they were plucked from a brilliantly colored coral reef seem to be lighted from within; the Confetti Seaform Set, a shell-shaped vessel full of biomorphic red, green and blue glass pieces, creates a gorgeous undersea world on a tabletop. On display indefinitely. 215 E. Grant St., Phoenix, 602-340-9200.