Ralph Steadman’s D.C. retrospective often shines a ‘gonzo’ light on America

SOMETIMES IT takes a prominent visiting writer or artist — from de Tocqueville to, say, Bono — to serve up a storyteller’s view of the United States that is one shot of awed wonder and two shots of bracing honesty. Along that continuum of colorful outsider perspectives sits Ralph Steadman, that savage ink-slinging satirist from Kent who depicts the land of the free as a minefield of bullies and blowhards and presidents, not necessarily in that order and not without some redundancy.

Steadman is the British/Welsh illustrator best known to the American masses as the journalistic “gonzo” accomplice of Hunter S. Thompson. While Thompson’s altered-state takedowns often skewered his homeland — including the bourbon-soaked Kentucky Derby “gentry” of his old Kentucky home for Scanlan’s Monthly — Steadman provided the gorgeously grotesque art. While they lived alongside the purposefully trippy prose, his images retained their own critical distance of the gimlet-eyed foreign tourist satirizing the trappings and illusions of the American Dream. They still reflect the resonant reason “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan calls Steadman “the Walter White of artists” whose “dark genius” — including his graphic knack for exposing us to raw, visceral truths — is “disturbing.”

“I was the innocent abroad,” Steadman says of that inaugural Louisville teaming with Thompson in 1970 that kicked off years of fruitful, sometimes fractious collaborations, including their tales of “Fear and Loathing,” from Vegas to Washington, as published in Rolling Stone. Yet even the year before that, Steadman had cast his skewed view toward the United States in a profanely flatulent take on President Richard Nixon.

Sitting a stone’s throw from the White House not long before Independence Day, the visiting Steadman reflects on Nixon — on what fun the president was to caricature, including for Thompson’s dispatches that were collected as “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”

Steadman then pivots to the present day, drawing a comparison to President Trump. “With Nixon, he was at least a politician,” says Steadman, letting his words hang in the air like a satiric word balloon.

The rock-star illustrator’s renderings of Nixon and Trump are rightly included in an exquisite exhibit titled “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” originally curated by the Cartoon Museum in London and now on view at the American University Museum’s Katzen Arts Center through Aug. 12.

Ralph Steadman slings ink at his home studio in Maidstone, Kent. (Rikard Osterlund)

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