There’s a wonderful art show at the Kansas City Public Library right now. Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective is a beautiful and compelling show! Best know as the gonzo artist depicting Hunter S Thompson’s exploits, this comprehensive show proves his art goes much farther than that.
The exhibition contains over 100 works, covering his Gonzo art, illustration jobs, magazine cartoons and artwork. In addition, there’s a special bonus for the Kansas City stop. Steadman’s Rolling Stone illustrations for John Dean’s reporting during the 1976 Republican Convention held at Kemper Arena.
Works from throughout his career dot the gallery walls. Illustrations start with his work for London’s satirical Private Eye magazine through his Gonzo stage to his recent work for Flying Dog Brewery. His work shares a kinship with Goya, Grosz and Pollock.
The actual scale of the works is impressive. Some of the works are three feet wide! The familiar size of cartoons are small, often just a third or quarter of a page in a magazine. Steadman knows no bounds for his work. Steadman’s works are large, expansive canvases of white paper with an adroit drops of ink spread liberally throughout.
Moral authority has been laid to rest, world opinion is no more than a game show and the difference between good and evil is about as relevant as changing channels.Ralph Steadman
Steadman’s technical skills are apparent throughout the collection on display. What’s more impressive is his use of materials. Ink and paper would seem to have limits to its physical presence. Steadman breaks all those boundaries with his ink blot explosions, and mastery of black and white and negative space. His more painterly illustrations contain an almost Dubuffet like quality.
There ‘s a strong debasement of pop culture in his work as well. Steadman uses popular symbols, politicians, to satirize society with a sharp blade. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan make appearances alongside bankers, police, and high society types.
It’d be easy to say Steadman’s work revolves around hypocrisy and abuses of power. Instead, his work is filled with sadness and disappointment in the people themselves. Steadman’s discomfort arrives at man’s inability to discern what their leaders do with the faith they are given. Leaders, political, social and economic, become lizards and horrific figures that dominate the scenery, with hollowed out members of the public appearing as powerless stick figures dotting the backgrounds.
1976 Republican Convention: Kansas City
The special addition to this touring exhibition is a gem! The 1976 Republican Convention took place at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. It was a contested convention between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. There’s a dozen large works illustrating John Dean’s Rolling Stone reporting. Convention goers appear as cows rolling through the nearby Stockyards. The herds of committed delegates brings out the humor when placed next to the fawning over the undeclared delegates. The scenes perfectly capture KC’s Main Street and August humidity. The very real fears of ultra conservative up and comer Reagan are also very apparent.
I don’t think that at the time, or now, come to think of it, I gave a damn. Foolishly, I wanted truth and idealism, but there was none to be had.The Joke’s Over (2006) – America’s Cup, p. 36
Art and the Art of Ralph Steadman
Outside the political attacks and social barbs, there are plenty of subtle and fun nods to art history in his work as well. In a scathing drawing of Margaret Thatcher at the Last Supper, Steadman takes the opportunity to take credit for the original, playfully calling out Da Vinci’s plagiarism. The illustrations from Alice in Wonderland are just joys for the eye to see.
The absolute highlight is a fight between Renaissance masters on scaffolds. With Michelangelo and Da Vinci hurling insults at each other, an artist’s arm is extended ala Adam in the Creation of Adam. Of course, the paint brush explodes into Steadman’s own ink blots.
The show is a wonderful trip through his life’s work. Each piece carries its own surprises and attitude. Revel in the technical aspects, and ponder the social views. The marriage of this show and the library is a wonderful combination. Steadman’s work rightfully exists on its own merits, but has always been informed with literary influences. Placing his artwork in the library makes the natural connection obvious. The library serves as the perfect location for this exhibition. Go out and see this show today!
Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective
On view at the Kansas City Library’s Central Branch until September 8, 2019.