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The freedom of fences

A retrospective of the works of Theo Wujcik, artist and USF professor, gathers his transformations of the styles and images of other artists.

Theo Wujcik has spent his career in an enviable position: in the company of avant-garde artists who have made it big.

This weekend, Wujcik (WOO-chik) becomes the first bay area artist granted a retrospective at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. His show takes up all five galleries.

He is master printer at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida, where he collaborates with outstanding artists to make editionable art. He also teaches at USF.

From his perspective on the rim of the limelight, he has taken inspiration from the works of others, incorporating their motifs and forms. He does so without apology.

You see it in the Warhol cow heads, repeated like a pattern in Puff the Magic Dragon. Or in the huge rabbit, dogs and vacuum cleaners in She Sells Sea Shells, inspired by Jeff Koons' pop icons. Or in the fragmentation of images, recognizable but difficult to resolve, breaking up space in a way akin to that of his good friend, artist James Rosenquist.

And you see it in appropriations from artists now dead: Rodin, Picasso, Van Gogh, and others.

"All artists appropriate," says Margaret Miller, director of USF's Contemporary Art Museum, who curated the Gulf Coast show with Rosenquist. "Some feel embarrassed about it. Theo sees it as collaborating with great minds."

But is that enough to justify the high regard in which he is held not only by the many artists with whom he has worked, but also by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and others who have included his work in their permanent collections? By the Richard Florsheim Fund, a prestigious nationwide grant source and a major supporter for this show? By leading New York gallery Brooke Alexander? By New York Times critics John Russell and Hilton Kramer?

Viewers can probe these questions for themselves as they come to a better understanding of why a Tampa-based artist has attracted such hoopla.

Theo Wujcik was born in Detroit on Jan. 29, 1936, the ninth of 10 children. He grew up and studied painting and printmaking there, married and had two daughters. He exhibited in Boston, San Francisco, New York, won awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The last enabled him to train as a master printer at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Hollywood, Calif., an atelier established by June Wayne for the purpose of producing high-quality limited editions while allowing artists maximum freedom. He also did a stint at another highly regarded print workshop, Gemini G.E.L.

Meanwhile, he was doing some printmaking of his own, portraits of the artists with whom he had contact: Jasper Johns, Larry Bell, Ed Moses. He reverted to age-old methods: stippled engravings and silverpoints.

In 1970 he came to Tampa to become shop director of Graphicstudio, an innovative printmaking workshop based at the University of South Florida. Under founder Donald Saff, Graphicstudio was bringing in the nation's top artists. There Wujcik met Rosenquist, a leading pop artist who moved from New York to Aripeka, a coastal community on the Pasco-Hernando county line. (A landmark show of Rosenquist's paintings at the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, closes today.)

In 1979, Wujcik's marriage ended. Soon after, he joined Ybor City's punk scene, in disgust at the materialistic demands of consumers for art. With USF students, he formed Mododado, a nihilistic art group, recycling junk from trash bins.

The tornado struck in 1984.

Tampa Tornado was the title of a work depicting a huge funnel cloud defined by a wire mesh form, a Cyclone fence. The device seemed to turn and twist. At the same time, it enabled the viewer to see through to the other side of the image.

Wujcik knew he was onto something big. Repeatedly he used the chain link device to reinterpret works by Robert Rauschenberg, Theodore Gericault, Rodin and others. Art lovers found delight in identifying which masterpieces were "hidden" within.

One such work, and a key piece here, is Grey Homes/Potato Eaters, which pays homage to Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. In 1988 it won best of show at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the bay area's top outdoor show.

The next year, in the USF art museum's inaugural show, he exhibited The Studio, using chain link to mimic the composition of John Singleton Copley's painting Watson and the Shark, which depicts a dramatic rescue at sea.

But why did he title it The Studio?

Copley painted in realistic style, to give his work a romantic narrative.

Wujcik painted the subject as though it were on several canvas fragments held together by masking tape. The ship's mast appears as a pen, reminding us of the work's physical existence as a painting. Wujcik's interpretation _ via paint, canvas, tape _ brings us in touch with a truer reality.

In this way, he is a link in a long chain, from Jean-Leon Gerome's dog in eyeglasses to Rene Magritte's This Is Not a Pipe to Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Jasper Johns' flags _ mind games, certainly, but expanding the concept of art.

More intellectual stuff appears in Wujcik's references to Rodin and Dante. If a viewer researches Wujcik's Ugolino, he might come upon an obscure medieval artist of that name. But Wujcik's reference is to an earlier person, depicted by Rodin in his major work The Gates of Hell, in turn inspired by Dante's Inferno.

About the time of his 1991 marriage to Susan Johnson, Wujcik temporarily abandoned the chain link motif to explore other ideas. Sprigs of baby's breath adorn Picasso-esque paintings to make a statement affirming life. Masking tape painted on a self-portrait seems to pull up sagging skin. In 1993, a daughter, Frankie, was born.

In 1995, Wujcik won best of show at Gasparilla a second time. Lisa Phillips, curator of the Whitney Museum of Art's next biennial, chose the awards. Although the Whitney Biennial can launch an artist to worldwide fame, Phillips made no followup.

Fame would have been nice, though for now it comes to a few in New York or Los Angeles, and not to those who labor in Tampa. Miller suggests that for Wujcik, fame is less important than the enthusiasm of knowledgeable friends, like Rosenquist or Saff, for his work.

When Wujcik returned to chain link, it was different, gradually deconstructing and becoming more abstract. No longer a line, it was space. It became a device to contain and separate flat pop images that the eye could recognize but could not see as a whole, or make sense of with its juxtaposition with adjacent images.

It is a method long used by Rosenquist, who abstracts the graphic artist's device of crosshatching into darts.

More appropriation. But it is done in such an obvious, blatant way that it seems all the more difficult for an artist to turn it into his own unique statement.

But that's exactly what Wujcik does. It's his shtick, transforming the art of others, building on their techniques and thoughts, and at the same time paying them homage.

That's where Wujcik excels. Through this retrospective, viewers can follow this remarkable personal challenge.

We can only wonder: What's next?

At a glance

Pinewood Cultural Park, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through Nov. 5. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thurs.; noon-4 p.m. Sun. Admission: $3 adults, $2 seniors and students with ID; free for 12 and under. Free on Thursdays. Call (727) 518-6833, ext. 200, or check http://www.gulfcoastmuseum.org.

Also on view: "Nitin Jayaswal: Centripetal Garden," in museum courtyard.

Up next:CORRECTION

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