On the evening of July 29, an art show opened in a new Chapel Hill gallery, behind tall windows wrapped around the corner at Franklin and Columbia.
It was a casual and unpretentious affair. In the buzzing crowd of well-wishers and prospective buyers, sweaty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon were more easily found than swirled flutes of cava. The faded band tees, cowboy shirts, and anonymous jeans of the townie rock set were much in evidence. And rather than floating regally in broad negative spaces or hiding in vitrines, the artworks jostled and sprawled in a panoramic burst of visual noise. They retained something of the get-in-where-you-fit-in quality of their original contexts: weather-beaten bulletin boards, telephone poles riddled with rusty staples, nightclub windows flaked with ancient cellophane.
20 Years in Print: The Art of Ron Liberti runs through the end of September in the gallery space at the new Ackland Museum Store. It celebrates the cumulative achievement of the New Jersey-born artist, who moved to Chapel Hill in 1991 and quickly set about making his name as a charismatic performer (most notably, as the singer for the punk band Pipe) while creating an iconic visual language for local music through prodigious poster-making. At the opening reception, Billy Sugarfix sang his gentle acoustic ballads in a corner, and murmurs of "I was at that show!" rippled around as people drifted through the room in small, permeable groups. A fossil record of local bands and clubs—interspersed with big-name touring bands in later years—clamored over the walls: Southern Culture on the Skids, Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, Lud, Dexter Romweber, Pipe, Polvo, the Rosebuds, the Chest Pains. Up-and-coming venues like the Pinhook abided next to dearly departed ones like Go! Room 4, which created the affecting illusion that my old crimson haunt had never closed down.
But there's more than nostalgia on sale. Liberti, ever the workhorse, created 50 T-shirts for the show, each with a unique design—though who knows if there will be any left by the time you read this. There is also a smattering of textile work: for $400, you could own a custom-screened Ron Liberti dress that features an instantly recognizable, jagged geometry of overlapping faces and errant text. (Not to worry—the prints are more affordable.) This might all sound like an awfully big to-do for someone whose art is decidedly functional and, at least in theory, disposable. But Liberti's work transcends the evanescent concerts it promotes. Nobody tosses out his posters once the show is over—instead, they rush to peel them off the wall and shuttle them home as soon as the final chord rings out. Even the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library is a Liberti hoarder.
Liberti's technique has steadily improved over the years—pivotally, he switched over from photocopying to screen-printing—but his essential vision has been remarkably consistent, blending hand-made care, punk energy, mischievous humor, and high-impact contemporary design. He favors manipulated faces, audacious fonts, space-warping background textures, and bold color blocks of electric neons and creamy pastels. He renders the names of bands with particular panache, as when "Modest Mouse" appears as a smoky cloud, or when the "Him" of "She & Him" drapes like a robber's mask over M. Ward's face. Mediocre posters need to be instantly legible, but Liberti can pull off these experimental flourishes because the visual wallop of his work compels you to stop and stare—you want to figure out what they're about. And for all his adventurous gambits, he doesn't traffic in non sequiturs. He always takes care to make sure his visual choices are meaningful to the band for which he's working. Why does a Best Coast poster feature an image of Stevie Nicks? Because, Liberti explained, he heard Bethany Cosentino say that she liked Nicks in a radio interview.
To me, the most exciting items in the show are a handful of original works that Liberti made for himself rather than for a band—what you would automatically call his "fine art" if the posters weren't already so close to it. "Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman Walk into a Bar"—a pretty self-explanatory hybrid portrait—evokes a Warhol with more feeling, though Liberti said that he's more inspired by Ray Johnson and Robert Rauschenberg. The latter's influence permeates "Back to School," a monoprint that repurposes elements from Liberti's band flyers—a Wye Oak poster; a pair of ballet slippers with straightedge X's drawn on the toes. My favorite piece of them all was "American Checkbook etc.," where urgently struck-through red and blue digits swarm on a rich, cool field of sea-foam green, somehow conjuring neurosis and serenity at once, in that weird alchemical way of art. Liberti has never had a solo show of his unbranded work, but it feels like the time is nigh.