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The art of Ybor's late punk prince Theo Wujcik lives on at the MFA

ST. PETERSBURG — If you didn't know any better, you'd think that Theo Wujcik was the unofficial 1980s punk prince of Ybor. The wiry Wujcik, also known as the punk professor, spent his manic energy burning up the dance floor in Ybor clubs when he wasn't creating paintings full of power and pain.

You can see 10 of his large works in "Theo Wujcik: Cantos" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through June 2. Inspired by Dante's fierce descriptions of the underworld in his 1320 work, Inferno, Wujcik's tortured feelings explode across his canvases and whirl furiously through his private hell.

The respected artist and University of South Florida professor, who died in 2014, danced like a madman in Ybor's punk and new wave clubs. However, after bouts of slam dancing, he would go to his Ybor Studio and paint like … hell.

"His modus operandi was to start at 11 p.m. at the Castle," said Stanton Storer, a longtime friend and collector of his work. "He was a rock star there. He'd dance by himself until 2 or 3 in the morning, then go to his studio and paint."

"Sometimes he would work to midnight, then he would 'get the punk on' and go out to the clubs, then come back to the studio, paint and also offer critiques to his students," said Susan Johnson, Theo's ex-wife. "He said: Just do something! Be creative. Go! Go! Go!"

Wujcik, who once said he got a studio in Ybor City so he wouldn't have to drive home drunk, sucked up the energy from the debris in Dumpsters and streets.

Nothing could be further from the young Wujcik, who hailed from Detroit. Born in 1936 the son of Polish immigrants, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. He studied art and trained as a master printer at Tamarind Lithography workshop.

It was his supreme skill in the delicate and highly disciplined art of printmaking that brought him to Tampa as director of the University of South Florida's noted printmaking operation, Graphicstudio.

He developed a number of original printmaking techniques and formed friendships with the famous 20th century artists who came to Graphicstudio including Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. His exquisite portraits of these artists can be found in the permanent collections of major U.S. museums.

Even during his time as a professor, Wujcik danced to his own drummer.

"He would take money from the cleaning staff, bet on the dogs, come back and give them their winnings," said Margaret Miller, director of USF's Institute for Research in Art.

Miller also remembers Wujcik getting bored at a tony South Tampa party.

"He jumped naked into the swimming pool."

The wild man had a tightly disciplined side, a quality revealed in his silverpoint etchings. Never more than inches in height, Wujcik's portraits of his fellow artists are deep in detail and precision. Etchings are made up of black lines on white paper, and Wujcik's ability to use line with force and expression was unparalleled.

In the 1980s, however, he was ready to break away from all this. Johnson remembers Rosenquist telling him, "You should use metaphor in your work."

Turning away from his old ways, Wujcik found some discarded chain-link fencing at an Ybor construction site. The wound-up fencing looked to him like a tornado. For Wujcik, the fence also was a metaphor for oppression.

Collaborating with his students, he founded a movement he called Mododato, or, as Johnson suggested, "modern Dadaism."

Meanwhile, Rauschenberg had made artworks inspired by Dante's Inferno, the 14th century epic poem about a journey through hell. Wujcik, who was going through some unhappy times, seized upon the topic.

In contrast to his jewel-sized etchings, Gates of Hell measures more than 11 feet across, with the red of hell fires glowing throughout. The chain-link fence theme is made more tangible because Wujcik used paper towels under his paint to give texture to the fence that is trapping the wailing figures inside the Inferno. The lines of fencing also are echoes of Wujcik's refined sense of line.

In Canto II you will see instruments of pain and entrapment: links of a chain, drill bits and the chain-link fencing. Hovering over this woven scene of hurtful objects are three lovely butter knives. These knives don't cut. With their gentle edges, they only spread smooth butter. In Canto II of Inferno, Dante is led through a circle of hell in which he receives protection from his lover Beatrice, Saint Lucia and the Virgin Mary.

The 10 works in the exhibition reveal Wujcik following Dante's footsteps through feelings of fear, loss, abandonment, entrapment, regret and release.

On a monitor in the gallery, you can even glance through Wujcik's handwritten notes as he traced Dante's agony and recognized his own pain.

He used that pain, taking the heat from his hurt and channeling it to create these canvases. As Dante once said, "Heat cannot be separated from fire."

Review

"Theo Wujcik: Cantos"

On display through June 2 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Museum admission is $20, $15 seniors, military, Florida educators and college students, $10 ages 7-17 and free for 6 and younger. $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org.

If you go

The MFA's Marly Room will transform into 1980s Ybor City to celebrate Wujcik's dance parties with a fundraiser hosted by the MFA's support group, the Contemporaries. DJ Gabe Echazabal will play punk and new wave music. There will be drinks, Ybor City-themed food and decor inspired by Wujcik. $30 for members of the Contemporaries, $45 for nonmembers, $60 VIP with a private gallery talk with Susan Johnson and MFA curator of contemporary art Katherine Pill. 7-10 p.m. May 17.

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