Today, the art world is a really big place. In the last few decades, the advent of the internet and the decline of Western cultural imperialism have opened making it an almost global network of creativity. Major galleries and museums now make a point to feature artists from all walks of life and countries of origin. If Picasso, a Spaniard, was the world’s foremost artist-celebrity in his heyday, one might argue that China’s Ai Weiwei has inherited his mantle.
But in some ways, the art world has changed for the worse. Sadly, it is still exclusive and money-driven, prone to excessive hype and bizarre trends. And for all intents and purposes, it is still based in a handful of cultural meccas: New York, Paris, London, Tokyo.
This is why it can be refreshing, even enlightening, to look at the work of artists living in places where the art world has scarcely penetrated, where the creative impulse isn’t overwhelmed by so much groupthink. South Dakota is one of these places. And when I think of South Dakota art, I think of Carl Grupp.
Throughout his long and distinguished career Grupp has established himself as the artist laureate of his home state. A native of Sioux Falls, he came of age during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, and much of his early work represents an attempt to find his own voice within the style of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
The masterpieces did not emerge, however, until Grupp abandoned art world fads and began to mine the depths of his own personal demons and creative obsessions.
Many of them appear to be the result of a lifetime spent poring over art history books. Channeling Rembrandt and Goya, his various sketches and lithographs convey different manifestations of a ghoulish carnival playing out inside the artist’s head. The macabre images of dancing skeletons, court jesters and circus performers appear to have been lifted from Renaissance-era Italy.
But the subject matter is often devastatingly intimate. During an interview last January, Grupp informed me that his signature piece, a sprawling woodcut called “Changing”, is “about the destruction of my marriage.”
In honor of his life’s achievements, Grupp was subject to a major retrospective at Augustana College’s Eide Dalrymple Gallery this past year. For me, viewing the progression of Grupp’s work proved an enlightening experience. There are self portraits and surrealistic still lifes, bold lithographs and abstract color fields (which were, according to Augustana art professor Tom Shields, intended for an exhibition in which the patrons were encouraged to wear 3-D glasses).
Apparently, there’s plenty an artist can do, even, or maybe especially, in South Dakota.
(Below are links to an article on Grupp’s life and career done for Augustana magazine, and an interview done with the artist for South Dakota Public Radio.)
Matt Housiaux, an intern at JAM Art & Supplies and a junior at Augustana College majoring in Journalism.
Top image taken from EyobArt’s Flickr account. Bottom image taken from Augustana College’s faculty page.