Planet Theo 

Renowned, accomplished Tampa artist Theo Wujcik targets climate change issues in our Ybor world.

If there’s an overused concept in visual art, it’s that of the master. But sometimes artists achieve such ease of creative facility, live through so many movements — abstraction, pop, photorealism — and, frankly, see so much shit (e.g., art world politics) that there really isn’t a better word to describe them.

Forty-two years ago, Theo Wujcik arrived in Tampa already a master — a master printer, or expert in fine art printing processes like etching and lithography, hired by USF’s Graphicstudio from the Detroit Lithography Workshop he had founded. Today, Wujcik is one of the city’s most revered art makers. His prints, drawings and paintings have been exhibited by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the United Nations and collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But where you’ll find the 76-year-old artist day after day (or, more likely, in the dead of night) is hard at work in his Ybor City studio — a warehouse on Ninth Avenue where 8-foot-tall canvases propped against the walls await a finishing touch or an admiring visitor. The onset of glaucoma has Wujcik grumbling about painting fine details (he does it anyway), but nothing keeps him from churning out work and showing up at his favorite local haunts (Seminole Heights gallery Tempus Projects, where he recently donated work for a benefit sale; Ybor resto The Bricks).

So far in 2012, Wujcik has been the subject of a 10-year retrospective at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery at Edison College in Fort Myers. In April, his most recent paintings — a series inspired by contemporary art in China — went on view at Galleri Urbane in Dallas and were included in the city's Fine Art Fair. Through June 7, a focused exhibit at the Ybor campus of Hillsborough Community College spotlights his global warming-themed paintings, circa 2005-07. And on June 30, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland debuts Invisible Elephant: Theo Wujcik and Kirk ke Wang, another China-themed project and collaboration between Wujcik and Wang, who teaches at Eckerd College.

Not a bad year, right?

Another good one by Wujcik’s estimation was 1970. That year he arrived in Tampa not long after completing a Ford Foundation fellowship to study printmaking at Tamarind Lithography Workshop in New Mexico and Los Angeles. At Tamarind in the late 1960s, Wujcik (then a young veteran who had studied art on the G.I. Bill) learned the ins and outs of printmaking techniques and befriended L.A.-based artists who collaborated with Tamarind printers to make serial works of art — lithographs drawn on stone plates, etchings meticulously reproduced in editions of 10 or 30. Fellow artists — names that already packed a wallop, like Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell — became Wujcik’s subjects: detailed portraits of his colleagues, drawn in silverpoint (a delicate Old Master technique) or made as prints, that were a hit with a prominent New York gallery.

After his fellowship at Tamarind, Wujcik moved back to Detroit. The Lithography Workshop had just finished its biggest commission, a 1,000-print series with minimalist Robert Morris, when Wujcik got a call from inviting him to work at the then 2-year-old Graphicstudio.

“I was the best move I ever made,” he says.

After a couple of years as Graphicstudio’s shop manager (the friend who had invited him promptly vacated the post), Wujcik stepped into the position he would occupy for a little more than 30 years at USF — professor of art, teaching printmaking, drawing and painting. His influence was strong in the classroom but just as strong in the social scenes. In the 1980s he became a fixture at a Tampa punk venues the Buffalo Roadhouse and the Miss Lucky Club, and with a few USF graduate students he started an art-and-music, genre-blurring collective called Mododado. During that time, Wujcik would wear gold-painted boots to concerts and then use them in his work, smearing paint onto paper with the shoes.

In the ’90s, he and second wife Susan Johnson opened an art gallery in Ybor where they exhibited paintings by Pinellas-based painter James Michaels and Graphicstudio collaborator James Rosenquist. (Rosenquist and Graphicstudio director Margaret Miller, co-curated a 30-year retrospective of Wujcik’s work for the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in 2000.)

Some thought he’d lost his mind, Wujcik says, turning away from a percolating career up north to teach and live the bohemian life in Tampa, but the city has always provided the collaborative spark he needs to make art.

Since his retirement in 2003, Wujcik has only become more prolific. His global warming paintings at HCC Ybor take on the topic through a variety of visual strategies. One large canvas, “Weeping Willow,” a chaotic, grayscale landscape comprises iconic comic book forms (quoted by Wujcik from actual comic books). Dynamic swooshes of projectile rocks and ominous clouds zig-zag as a landslide forebodes in the foreground. Other paintings use the pixel as a symbol for climate change denial. In “Deadly Cocktail,” blocks of the colorful square pixels sit atop swaths of white paint that evoke melting icebergs. In “Rauschenberg — Direct Hit,” missing pixels obscure the image of longtime friend and famed artist Robert Rauschenberg (who died in 2008). The work recalls a 2004 hurricane that stranded him in his Captiva Island home.

The exhibit makes a great teaching resource by offering a peek into how Wujcik fuses personal, political and aesthetic impulses into work about an issue of global concern. One of the show’s pieces, “Global Crown,” traveled throughout Europe and to Chicago as part of a U.N.-sponsored exhibit about climate change.

Wujcik’s latest paintings, inspired by the rise of China as a world player in commerce and contemporary art, expand his global horizons but also deepen his local connections. Yet to be curated, the Lakeland show may include portraits by Wujcik of Chinese artists Zhang Huan, Cai Guo Qiang and Ai Weiwei (like the L.A. artists of the 1960s, they have put China on the map) and paintings co-created by Wujcik and Kirk ke Wang (e.g., one of a jade figurine and two children eating rice). The exhibit marks a reunion for the two artists — Wang, who was born in Shanghai and studied art at USF, may be one of Wujcik’s most successful creative progeny.

Now, that’s the sign of a true master.

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