You might not know the name Ralph Steadman, but if you’ve ever picked up a sixer of Flying Dog or a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you know his work. All too often, illustrators are left in the shadows, their work considered lesser than that of fine artists because it graces the pages of newspapers or a bottle of beer instead of a gallery wall. As such, they usually labor in obscurity. At American University’s latest exhibition, the famed illustrator’s work is elevated and treated with the reverence that it deserves.
The retrospective highlights over 100 works from Steadman’s long and prolific career, covering everything from political cartoons to wine catalogs to the numerous books he’s written and illustrated. Steadman, who grew up and was educated in England, bristled at the British trappings of class and authority, and his somewhat grotesque and exaggerated depictions of people and bodies reflects his irreverent sensibility. His signature inkblots, which at times resemble blood spatter or spewed vomit, depending on the violence or disgust he means to evoke, are a defining feature of his work.
The bleakness of human existence is a recurring theme in Steadman’s work, and several of his pieces take umbrage with the world’s injustices and abuses by the powerful. “The Police” is a striking and zeitgeisty standout: The piece depicts police officers with faces made of guns, their snouts appearing both humorously porcine and seriously deadly. In “The Peacekeepers Are Coming! The Peacekeepers Are Coming!” a young boy shouts the titular worlds while he’s being chased by a barrage of spidery monsters deployed from a U.S. military helicopter, a response to Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. A large chunk of Steadman’s works are political cartoons for various publications, in which distinguished—and controversial—figures like Margaret Thatcher, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Nixon are rendered significantly less dignified by Steadman’s pen.
The all-powerful forces of the world were not Steadman’s only targets, though. His career really took off when he successfully began submitting cartoons to publications such as Private Eye. The subjects of these caricatures range from vapid partygoers to married couples to waiters, and skewer the very notion of respectability and civil society. His long-standing collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson began when the gonzo journalist requested someone with a “really peculiar sense of humour… with a serious kink in his brain” to illustrate an article about the Kentucky Derby. Steadman’s deranged and anarchic works certainly fit the bill, and the illustrations accompanying Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became instantly iconic.
The gallery pays tribute to Steadman’s spirit of chaos with sporadic inkblot recreations dotting the wall among his pieces. In addition to the splatters, Steadman’s work is dense with a variety of linework, hatching, and stippling, and it’s a treat to study these details up close at full size, instead of shrunken to fit a page or a label. In particular, the original artwork for Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch Belgian IPA, which many drinkers in this region are surely familiar with, is fascinating to see outside of its usual context and blown up to poster dimensions. In this form, every last fleck and speck of ink shines through.
On top of Steadman’s greatest hits and well-known published works, the retrospective plumbs the depths of his experimentation and early sketches, showing a totally new side of his work. Among these are Polaroids that Steadman tampered with while the ink was still running and practice sketches of men drinking in London pubs. His stunning charcoals of gorgeous museum architecture proves that the man not only has style, but can draw with the best of them. It’s fitting that after spending so much time practicing in those museums early on, his work finally earned a rightful place in one.
At the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to August 124400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885- 1000. American.edu/cas/museum/index.cfm.