The grotesque and the gold

Artist Ralph Steadman is a people-loving, Nietzsche-reading, ink-splattering grump. And he doesn't think Hunter S. Thompson should have a gun.

By Gregory Daurer
September 2, 2000 6:00AM (UTC)
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Fear and loathing -- artist Ralph Steadman feels both working with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and occasionally on his own. A humorous, visual alchemist, Steadman turns the grotesque into gold. He even has the look of a wizard with his crown of white hair and his Hawaiian necklaces.

We know Steadman for his splattered inkings, which punctuate the off-the-wall antics in books of Thompson's such as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Curse of Lono," as well as the writer's occasional Rolling Stone articles. Steadman has also written and illustrated books on wine ("The Grapes of Ralph"), whiskey, da Vinci, Freud and God ("The Big I Am"). Throw a few children's stories into the merry mix, too. His Charlie Chaplin stamp has traveled the U.K. via the British postal system, and many a tippler has admired the graphics he has done for wine and beer labels.

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Steadman, 64, lives in Kent, England. Occasionally, he travels to Colorado to display his artwork at the William Havu Gallery in Denver and to visit his friend Thompson in Aspen. His latest exhibit is entitled "Making a Mark," a reference to his recent tactic of beginning each piece without an initial subject in mind -- only marks, such as his trademark ink drippings, from which he subsequently seeks to derive meaning. A reader of Nietzsche, Kant and Schopenhauer, he gets philosophical when speaking about his latest method: "The newest aspect of my life is that I really don't know what the drawing is for anymore," says Steadman. "I'm following that path."

You've written about how, at one point, it seems like art went one way and cartooning went the other. Do you think your work has bridged that gap?

I'd like to think that it did -- that I was trying to blur the division. I think good art can be purely decorative, but it can also inform the intellect in a certain way. It can inform the intellect decoratively, like the Maya sculptures, the Maya pyramids and the Egyptian hieroglyphics. It's an information vehicle, like cave painters and the way they exorcised their fear by drawing on a cave wall the very fear that they were about to go out and hunt. That seems to be a very real reason why art ever came into existence at all. They had the art to protect them from the truth. They realized the truth was hideous. And the idea that they would [draw animals] from the side, too, triggered that thought. They would always draw them in profile because they didn't want to see them face-on.

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But it seems like you face some of your fears head-on in your paintings: You depict some of the things that disturb you.

Oh, the problem is I'm afraid of life. Believe me, I'm afraid of life. I think life is a monster. But it's also a wonderful thing. I mean, it's the bird song and all the rest -- let's not to get too poesy and romantic. But I love all those things. You look at it and say, "Look at it. It's so fucking right. It looks wonderful. I'm so in awe of it." And then man comes along and fucks it up. And that's a thing in Nietzsche that I love particularly: that it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence in the world is permanently justified. It is a beautiful aesthetic phenomenon, and man goes out of his way to try to destroy it.

I think as you get older you start playing more. I think to myself, "I've been so fucking serious for so long, trying to make my work meaningful, trying to change the goddamn world. I can't change the bloody world! It's getting worse." So, I ain't done much of a job, myself. I've done nothing to help it. I'm not a leader of any kind. I'm just an artist trying to do something.

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And, bless it, blissfully, a lot of people have thought likewise and liked what I did. But only, I think, as an affirmation of what it is they think themselves. What I might have done is picked up on someone else's vibes. And all I've done is manifest it, then, in a drawing, and people go, "I like that, because I think that way." That's how people look at my work, I bet. But that's only preaching to the converted, isn't it? People already think like that, so what am I doing? I'm doing something which is out of date, finished.

Do you wish Hunter and you were doing a "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" book?

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We're [Steadman and his wife, Anna] supposed to go up to Aspen, and then go from Aspen [with Hunter] up to Reno, Nev., and cover an anarchist festival. I said to Hunter, "Why don't I just do it from Aspen, not go to the anarchist festival?" I don't want to go to a fucking anarchist festival. They may blow me up! Just for fun, that would be part of the festival: "Hey, there's a limey guy! He's not even from America."

If you go to Aspen, Hunter might blow you up.

He won't, no. He tried. He nearly did, actually.

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What happened?

The story is I set him up with some ink pots hung from string in front of pieces of paper and had him shoot them with a .410 double-barreled shotgun. He got interested in it because when it hit the bottle -- "psssssshhhh" -- it did wonderful things. He was making artwork with the gun. And then he got so interested in it, because the ink from the blast of the pellets onto the paper decided to run down, and he rushed forward to stop the color from going any further. He was making an aesthetic judgment, and he threw the gun [on the ground] and it still had a bloody bullet in the bloody barrel and it went off. It went through the petrol can of his John Deere tractor. He looked mortified. He was.

You know recently he tried to hit a bear; he tried to scare it, and he hit his aide. So that was a problem, and it worried him terribly. But he says, "I am one of the few people who should have guns." And I think he's one of the few people who shouldn't have guns; everybody else should have guns. He really is funny like that. He's dangerous when he's got a gun, but he's also good with a gun. But guns are hellish things, anyway, so I don't approve.

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Some people might see your work and imagine a menacing individual behind the pen. But you're really a softie, aren't you? You're great with kids.

Oh, yeah. I love people. But I'm afraid of what they do to each other. I think people are disgusting to one another, and I think they're two-faced about it.

I like people. People are surprised: They think I obviously hate people or I can't be much fun or I'm a fucking old grump. But, OK, I'm grumpy sometimes; we're all grumpy sometimes. And I'm not sorry to be grumpy sometimes, because some people ask for it.

It hasn't been released in the United States yet, so tell me: What is your new children's book, "little.com," about?

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[In a quickened, storytelling voice] It's about a dot that lives in our computer. When we switch it off, it disappears. It goes to see the Duchess of Amalfi. And the Duchess of Amalfi doesn't give him tea, she gives him ink. He loves ink; he drinks ink. It loves to roll down the hill after it's been to see the duchess in her castle on the hill. But at the bottom of the hill is the Duke of Bogshot with his White Army. They run for cover, because they're going to get their uniforms splashed with this ink.

It gives me a great opportunity to do all this splashing around and make a multitude of characters, which are all a dot being something else: being a tiger, being something that flies, being a complete mess because it tried to fly and it fell, it crash-landed, and it looked a proper mess after that. And so did the army, because he splattered the army when he came down. I've animated the dot. I've given the dot a character -- or many characters.

And then the Duchess of Amalfi eventually falls in love with the Duke of Bogshot and his White Army, and he asks her if she'd wear his mother's wedding dress, which is a black, regimental, barbed-wire wedding dress. Which is funny; for me it's funny, anyway. And they get married. And it finishes on that happy note: balloons up from the castle and the army standing in a trench behind him, and the duke in white with the duchess in black with a castellated front to her wedding dress, like a militarist thing. But he's all splattered, he's covered in splats. He's very proud with his mustache and the tall hat with the peak.

And so it's a fun book -- that's all it is. And I had somebody write and say, "We can't publish this in America. I like Steadman's work, but this is far too slight." And I felt, well, it's a children's book, for Christ's sake! What do you mean, it's "too slight"? What do you want to give children? Give them Schopenhauer, then, OK?

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It pisses me off when somebody says, "We can't." They're looking for a goddamn excuse to say "No," you know?


Gregory Daurer

Gregory Daurer is a freelance writer living in Denver. He also records his own songs under the nom de rock 'n' roll Gregory Ego.

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