Gaetano "Tanino" Liberatore loves drawing and sex. Beginning with a frenzy at the age of five, while running a fever and in a spell, Liberatore claims to have made some 500 drawings within the course of a day. Just a few years later, he was obsessively drawing from movie magazines; stripping the stars and pumping up their breasts. Despite his father's constant efforts to prevent and discourage him from drawing, he was always putting pen to paper. It was both his passion and a way to manage his fascination with sex. After years of tumultuous efforts, successes, and what Liberatore credits all to chance, he managed to land a gig that would put his name in the halls of comics history. Through a collaboration with writer Stefano Tamburini and the comic and character Rank Xerox, a long and perverse partnership began.
Condensed to RanXerox—as a solution to the threat of a lawsuit by the company holding the Xerox trademark, horrified by the violence in the comic, and wanting no association with it whatsoever—Liberatore's and Tamburini's creation appeared in Italian magazines like Cannibale and Frigidaire. Beefed up by Liberatore’s Michaelangelan-like chops and full color, Ranx depicted a ghoulish, hyper masculine, oversexed, psycho cyborg composed of photocopiers and flesh, along with Lubna, his ponytailed partner of questionable age. Together, they wreaked havoc, coitus, and more havoc, acting purely on their id throughout their misadventures. Sex and violence. Drugs and anarchy. Don’t forget the Xeroxes.
Liberatore’s comics work is incredibly cinematic, the figures meaty and bulging. In his surreal use of pantone markers and pencil, everything is disturbingly accurate; the successive hand-crunching, head-exploding action has no detail left unexaggerated. This was visceral violence on a new scale, baring it all: gore, genitals and spanked asses. Rendered this real, sometimes too real, portions of its already problematic subject matter became all the more off-putting to some. Tamburini and Liberatore loved these extreme, and Ranx ran a campaign of shock and awe.
Liberatore and Ranx found their introduction to America in Heavy Metal magazine in 1983, and their freakish brand of sci-fi comics was eventually compiled into at least three collections of various printings and languages. Liberatore’s work would also grace the likes of Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan (cover, No. 97) and Frank Zappa’s The Man from Utopia LP (with Zappa looking very familiar), amongst others. He continues to make comics, drawings and paintings which have been collected into several volumes, most recently in 2019’s Body count.
My first impressions of Liberatore’s work left me eyes wide and mouth agape. I'd never seen comics drawn with such convincing realism and detail, with such a goofy self-awareness. I realized I was disgusted, but I liked it, though I was initially turned off by some of the more extreme elements. What brought me back was the drawings - bursting with impact and energy in every panel, they are captivating.
Stepping into Poetry Interrupted!, an exhibition of paintings and drawings by Liberatore at the Philippe Labaune Gallery, I thought I would be met with the Liberatore I was familiar with: those high octane pages of his Heavy Metal work, surging with action and sex. But what I found upon entering Philippe Labaune was something I did not entirely expect.
Located on the last strip of West 24th Street before reaching the West Side Highway, Philippe Labaune sits on the south side of the street. I'd first stumbled in after spotting their opening exhibit, a tribute to Katsuhiro Ōtomo (the group show Good for Health - Bad for Education, April-May 2021), and the Gallery was a pleasant surprise. Having hosted the likes of Dave McKean and Georges Bess since then, PLG seems to have ambitious plans for future exhibits, some of which were hinted at but not revealed or confirmed, remaining a hopeful surprise for comics fans and gallery patrons alike. It's a welcome addition to New York’s roster.
Entering, one is met by the show's centerpiece: "Les Phares", a halved figure on her back, sprawled across a carved plateau and two sheets of paper. Chopped and screwed, she lays rendered and smooth on the left, rough and hatched on the right. Everything outside the figure is handled with a similar contrast; organic and crude rubbings to sharp angles and crisp vertices. "Les Phares" is engaging, the quick hatching almost like the bastard child of Moebius and Corben. Simple and efficient, showing form with less: a pleasantly clunky yet acute line.
Moving through the drawings quickly in search of some RanXerox originals, it dawned on me that there were indeed no comics pages present. A second investigative lap of the show confirmed it. This was an unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance. One could argue that, had I read the description on the gallery’s website, I would have been aware the show was mostly a collection of Liberatore’s drawings to accompany Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal ("The Flowers of Evil"), 2015. No harm no foul, though I was really aching to see some of Liberatore’s originals. Fortunately a lone copy of Ranx was available for visitors to satiate one's troglodytic self and indulge. While the drawings in Poetry Interrupted! are impressive, they lack a certain impact that the comics possess, to no fault of their own. Liberatore’s chops are on display; bodies, charcoal and the page.
Surrounding "Les Phares", a dozen other large pieces crash the gallery’s main room, ranging from erotic to aggro. The linework is playful but controlled, with an enviable looseness in its accuracy. A deceptive contour; the single line that manages to detail several points of form at once can be picked out of his work at times. The drawings are confident and agreeable, clearly conveying the joy and pleasure taken in creating them. Here on these pages, Liberatore is at ease, a rare privilege in contrast the Sisyphean and repetitive efforts required while pursuing comics, indulging in the drawing rather than making a deadline.
Sexual tones, from the overt to the obvious, snake their way through a majority of the works in the show. At this point it’s what one can come to expect from Liberatore; sex is inherent to, if not responsible for his work. Though gratuitous, his gaze is respectful, the distinction clear. Where someone like Milo Manara loses me with a casual misogyny and his objectification of women, Liberatore’s approach is less out of a desire to control and exploit, but in admiration and meant to empower. It possesses an innocence and boyishness to it. Whether or not tits and muscles are your thing, the work is fair, and retains an elegance similar to that of the Great Masters (Mikey, Leo, etc).
A couple of acrylic paintings spot the exhibit, Liberatore showing off again, creating exaggerated form with an interesting combination of techniques and materials. Compared to the drawings, there are multiple layers to his paintings, with rotoscopic-like renderings similar to that of Richard Corben’s color work. Strokes crisscross over pencil hatching, creating a real sense of mass. Up to his old tricks, he mixes a foreign agent into the paint to create a muted effect and drag through the strokes, in the end forming those familiar high cheek bones with a mouth like a bleached orangutan wearing purple lipstick. As usual, there’s a good-natured sense of play in the work - Liberatore seems intent on entertaining himself as well as the viewer.
The control that Liberatore shows in his drawing is incredible. His mastery of exaggerating proportions is unmatched. Bulging arms with drain pipe veins and tendons appear photorealistically convincing while still being freakishly large. It instills a sense of awe, that the same artist is responsible for the pages of RanXerox drew the casual line of "A une Mendiante Rousse (To an Auburn-Haired Beggar)". The line feels as if it could be blown off the page but the heavy solidity it carries in the figure’s more fleshed out contours grounds it. The consideration and capability of his craft is evident in every line; the tires and crate remnants, her round stockinged calves, the soft marks of her brow and cheeks. Melancholic and captivating, Liberatore’s line implies a heavy emotional investment that is on full display throughout the show.
Poetry Interrupted! is just that: emphatic figure drawings, melancholic and ethereal illustrations complimented by an overdose of sexuality, a blast of raw power and a tinge of humor. It's an earnest and personal exhibit, which most American fans might not immediately associate with the work of Liberatore. But with an awareness of his best sensibilities and the pieces in which they excel, Philippe Labaune Gallery has curated a tight exhibit of work. The drawings, arranged thoughtfully, move one through the gallery with a natural pace and at a good beat, making creative use of alcoves and the interior room. I can’t say I’m a total fan of having tribute art (from artists like Paul Pope, Viktor Kalvachev and others) in a solo exhibit - I found it distracting, their work clashing too much with that of the show’s main focus, leaving the impression of being padded out. And again: I would have loved to see some original pages from his Heavy Metal work. Despite this, the show is a memorable one. Whether a familiar fan or new to the works of Tanino Liberatore, Poetry Interrupted! will leave you with an appreciation for his skill and that true labor of love that is drawing.
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The Philippe Labaune Gallery is located at 534 W. 24 St., New York City; the exhibit Tanino Liberatore: Poetry Interrupted! is open until November 13, 2021.