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“No color is a color, unless it’s next to another color.”

So says Washington artist Camille Patha on the audio guide to the Tacoma Art Museum’s (TAM) new exhibit, “A Punch of Color: Fifty Years of Painting by Camille Patha.”

As if to prove that point, TAM has placed Patha’s pop-art bright “Punch” — with its orange and apricot hues sprinkled with jet-black splatters and framed by pink-black vertical stripes — at the entrance of the show where it can have maximum impact.

“Punch,” an oil on canvas from 2013, is grouped with 10 paintings of similar vintage that are the main reason to see this retrospective. The titles alone — “Launching Violet,” “Yella Thrilla,” “Perpetually Forward” — indicate the energy behind this late work. The decades-long steps leading up to it are a more erratic affair, with notable mileposts along the way, but occasional uncertainty, too.

In the earliest oil on canvas, titled “Big Red” (1964), strong reds, oranges, magentas and violets struggle to emerge from dark browns and pale grays. Patha painted this abstract while in the master’s program at the University of Washington, where she was advised to tone the color down. Look at the way the bright hues try to surface from the below the dull ones, and you can practically hear her sighs of impatience with her instructors.

It didn’t take her long to ditch them. As the rest of the exhibit shows, she was a restless spirit continually on the lookout for new visual languages to inspire her.

One early rebellion: Why be confined to rectangular images? “Space Game” (1968) delivers exactly what it promises: Op Art playfulness with two irregularly shaped canvases juxtaposed to create a vertiginous, stylized canyon landscape in orange, white and black. “Boxed Lunch” (1971), also oddly shaped, depicts a lakeside scene enclosed by sky-colored walls: a sort of claustrophobic idyll.

By the mid-1970s, conventionally shaped canvases were back and the influence of Magritte and Chirico was palpable. “Arches of Air” evokes a floating architecture on a chessboard landscape.

“The Conductor” does extraordinary things with a partly-levitating brick wall and three rows of green apples that are diaphanous to varying degrees. Both paintings, with trompe l’oeil virtuosity, create impossible intersections of hard surface and weightlessness, opacity and transparency.

Blends of disparate landscapes attracted Patha in the late 1970s, most notably in the dusky purples of “Generalife,” which combines a still life, a Puget Sound vista and the ornate Moorish architecture of the Alhambra. Feminist concerns were paramount, too, the most obvious example being “Walled Venus.” Its replication of three Botticelli Venuses deeply ingrained in a solid brick wall was a statement, Patha declared, on women’s “strength and our lack of escape.”

Sometime in the mid-1980s, there was a faltering in her direction. Then, after a 20-year gap, came that exuberant explosion of color. These huge ecstatic oils-on-canvas feel simultaneously like revelation and emancipation. Some seem to chronicle a single moment (“White Arrival,” “Launching Violet”) while others resemble narratives. The fluid entwinings of intricate shape and color in “Tropican” and “Yella Thrilla” almost ask be to read like a language, from left to right.

Patha has continued in this bright vein, and for anyone needing additional “punches” of color, she’ll have an April show at Davidson Galleries titled, intriguingly, “Irascible.”

Two other exhibits at TAM, both up through April 20, provide curious contrasts to Patha’s. “Agnes Martin: The New York-Taos Connection” shows Martin evolving from a sensitive landscape watercolorist to a painter of gray, abstract grids. It looks like a progress toward utter sterility.

Far more captivating is “Optic Nerve: The Art of Perception,” drawn from TAM’s permanent collection. It focuses on how paint can fool the eye. Highlights include Op Art works by Bridget Riley, Spencer Moseley and Victor Vasarely that let you perceive three dimensions where there are only two, and one extraordinary piece by Michael Fajans which reads as “photorealist” at first, but on closer examination is riddled with subtle, unnerving distortions of shadow and color.

Michael Upchurch: