No fear, no loathing: New exhibit features artist Ralph Steadman

Opening title page, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

“There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else. That’s why I sometimes like just splatting, and letting that become part of the work.” —Ralph Steadman

Artist Ralph Steadman’s work is difficult to define.

Influenced by his early training as a mechanical engineer, it is a combination of edgy, unapologetic, highly imaginative illustrations, circles and straight lines, sometimes gears, often against a backdrop of purposefully splattered ink.

And it will be on display starting Oct. 4 in “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” a much-anticipated touring exhibition — the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is one of nine U.S. venues — that includes a selection of more than 100 of Steadman’s paintings, sculpture and works in other media.

Hunter S Thompson 1937-2005Steadman is perhaps most famous for his friendship and collaboration with “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson, which included the iconic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s and later made into a book. For those not familiar with gonzo journalism, it is a style of reporting Steadman and Thompson pioneered in which one “does not simply cover the story but becomes the story.” It also typically involved the ingestion of an array of drugs and cocktails, mayhem and mishaps, with the end result a series of brilliant stories and accompanying illustrations.

Yet, beyond his partnership with Thompson, who took his own life in 2005, Steadman’s prolific 60-plus year career has encompassed everything from writing and illustrating 35 books; creating provocative beer labels and album covers for musical acts such as The Who, Exodus and Frank Zappa; and DVD box art for the television series “Breaking Bad” to countless illustrations and political cartoons that have landed in publications such as Private Eye, The New Yorker, Esquire, New Statesman and Rolling Stone, to name just a few.

In the 1980s, Steadman developed an obsession with Leonardo Da Vinci, which is chronicled in “I Leonardo,” a book featuring a series of illustrations and narratives on the famous Renaissance Italian polymath’s life.

“I think that the ‘I Leonardo’ drawings and the project that they grew out of are amongst his favorites,” said Sadie Williams, Steadman’s daughter, who will be representing her father at the exhibition’s opening. “He immersed himself in Leonardo’s world and work, built a flying machine, painted the last supper on the bedroom wall, traveled to Italy to walk through the places where Leonardo had lived and breathed. Leonardo is a hero of his and I think he felt they would have been friends.”

Alice Wool and WaterAt 83, Steadman continues to make art and collaborate on projects. Recently, to raise awareness about animal endangerment and extinction, he partnered with Vans, applying his signature splattered illustrations of various endangered animals on the canvas of the company’s classic slip-on shoes. And in 2017, rappers Travis Scott and Quavo commissioned him to draw the artwork for their Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho joint album.  

In conjunction with the retrospective, which runs through Jan. 19, the museum is hosting several corresponding events, including Steadman on Steadman at the Oct. 5 opening, when Williams will be on hand to share insights into her father’s work. Then, on Oct. 12, join Steadman himself for a lively conversation via Skype.

On Oct. 15, Schnitzer Cinema presents “For No Good Reason,” the 2012 documentary with actors Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp that explores the connection between life and art through the Steadman’s eyes.

Jill Hartz, the museum’s executive director and in-house curator for the exhibition, encourages everyone to come out and experience the depth and breadth of Steadman’s decades-long career.

“Viewers will come away impressed with Steadman’s proficiency and depth as an artist, the power of his political and social critiques, and his range of subject matter,” she said, “which includes the award-winning ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books as well as his original takes on Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and God. And that’s just for starters.”

For those wanting to get further immersed in Steadman’s work, Audible has created an app for the exhibition featuring the voices of Steadman, curator Anita O’Brien and actor Tim Robbins.

—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications