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O No, Mr. Lennon

"Yoko Ono Presents One of the Biggest Art and Media Events Taking Place in the Houston Area This Winter" trumpets the full-color press release. The artwork that the One and Ono will "unveil" -- never mind that she won't be in attendance -- on February 21 at the Renaissance Houston Hotel consists of prints of John Lennon's sketches that have been traveling the country for the past six years. Remember the rainbow-colored self-portrait of Lennon used for the Imagine movie and soundtrack? You'll see that a hundred times at this exhibit.

As you stroll through the hotel meeting rooms listening to piped-in Lennon tunes, you'll see T-shirts, posters and catalogs for sale, "limited edition" silk-screened prints of Lennon's handwritten lyrics (each embossed with the ubiquitous self-portrait), video displays of Lennon's movies, cels from Yellow Submarine and a set of "rare" photographs of Lennon. You'll also see prints of Lennon's drawings, including, the show's producer promises, an original "Bag One" portfolio. The "Bag One" prints illustrate John and Yoko's wedding, honeymoon and bed-in, and include eight erotic drawings that were confiscated by Scotland Yard when they were first exhibited in 1970. If you're buying, be sure you know what you're getting: Some of the "Bag One" drawings have been reprinted at a smaller size to avoid their being called a second edition. An original portfolio goes for around $70,000.

The ostensible reason for all this is not to peddle high-priced collectibles, but to bring John Lennon's art to his fans at an affordable price (prints start at $400). According to Ono, who spoke from her offices in New York, it hasn't been easy. "In the beginning, it was very hard to get a gallery to show John's work because he was so famous in another field that people didn't take his work seriously," she says. Or maybe it's just that most galleries don't have a souvenir booth and a stereo system. At any rate, the show is by now too big for any gallery to accommodate, and besides, Ono says, "He didn't want to show his stuff in a museum. That was not his style .... All these people who bought his records will feel more comfortable coming to see his work in a hotel rather than a museum."

Be that as it may, there seems to be another motivation for all this hoopla: to put a new spin on Lennon's, and therefore Ono's, history. The drawings in the show betray no evidence that Lennon was ever in a band. The press materials are quick to point out that before he was a Beatle, Lennon attended art school in Liverpool for six years. Of course, many British rockers of the day started as artists before realizing the folly of their career choice. And in art school Lennon, by his own admission, was better known for his alcohol intake than for his artistic output. The only interesting visual art he ever made was the highly collaborative Fluxus art he did with Ono in the late '60s, but at this exhibit you won't find any of those screwy installations, or vending machines dispensing capsules of air, or eggs filled with paint to be thrown at a wall. The point may be that Lennon was an artist, but the truth is we wouldn't be interested in these scribbles if he hadn't been the Yber pop star he was.

Some of these sketches are pure fluff -- such as the scene of naked, Ziggy-like people in a forest giving each other flowers, or the economical speed drawing of a jogger in Central Park. The majority depict Lennon alone -- staring at his younger self in a mirror, straddling Earth as if it were a beanbag chair -- or with Sean and Yoko. And that's the main spin of the show: It's a testimony to Lennon's post-Beatles, househusband happiness -- his happiness with Ono. Considering the vilification the woman has suffered, it's understandable she'd want to emphasize that part of her late husband's life. Lennon himself insisted that he did like being a househusband, and he did have an intense love for Sean. And he did, in the '70s, spend a lot of time depicting his domestic bliss. "Some people think I'm trying to accentuate that side of his drawings," Ono says. "Actually, whenever I come across a drawing that has nothing to do with his life with me, I try to make sure I include that just to show that he wasn't just drawing his family. In reality, a lot of them were [of] his family. But that's what he wanted to draw."

Of course, one might question why Ono doesn't make editions of the satirical sketches Lennon made when he was a Beatle, the ones she says reflect his "macho background." But her politics of omission aren't as offensive as the way the works she has chosen are presented. In the show's catalog, each drawing is accompanied by a vaulted, if disingenuous, explanation of what Lennon was allegedly thinking or feeling at the time -- my favorite is the one that describes a simple black-and-white sketch of Lennon's face as his "looking out at the world through rose-colored glasses." These texts begin as descriptions but frequently end as propaganda. On the Telephone with Family, the catalog tells us, is "a look into the everyday lives of the Lennon family. Yoko is chatting on the phone, while John gazes upon his son at play. Sean had become John's most important creation and his first concern in life." A sketch of John's and Yoko's heads popping out of a pie has the handwritten caption "an apple pie bed." The description reads, "Apple was the record label that the Beatles recorded under. After their breakup, John brought Yoko into his 'Apple Pie Bed' as an integral part of both his business and life." One rather sweet sketch of the couple kissing is made out to be "a further testament to their unique collaboration" because of the fact that Ono was present when the sketch was made and wrote "The Lennons" underneath it "in her own handwriting." (Who else's would she use?)

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