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?)

One supposedly controversial aspect of the prints is that Ono has added color to them -- blue washes to the skies, yellow to suns and rainbows to the self portraits and other drawings -- making them look like the B.C. comic strip on a Sunday. "I thought it was very strange when one of the initial organizers of this program came to me with [Lennon's] work that had been colored," Ono says. "I said, 'Who colored it? How dare you?' -- I felt almost sacrilegious. They were saying, 'Well, I'm sorry, we need some color because otherwise they don't put it in the window.' I have a realistic side. If they can't show it in the window, they're not going to do that type of show. I thought, I was the partner, so he might not mind if I do it. That kind of realism I learned by being with John and being in the record world."

Now, I find the whole proposition that John Lennon needs help getting his work in the window (the window? Were they trying to show this stuff in a shopping mall?) fairly dubious. But if Ono wants to color in reproductions of her late husband's sketches and sign them, I'm not going to get my dander up. It's basically glorified poster art anyway, and the prints for sale are glorified posters. As Ono says, "It'll be nice if people just dig his work and have fun." Art for the people, right on.

There will be more fun to be had if the actual event is handled better than the early promotion was. The release invites us to a three-day "exclusive Honolulu showing" at the Renaissance Houston Hotel, makes reference to Lennon's diary "entrees" and entices us to behold "two new pieces never shown before to the public that John did." It also assures us that the "admission is free, which is very unusual these days especially considering the artist." Last I checked, free admission was still a policy at most galleries. (Though it is surprising, considering its "Place for All People" agenda, that the Museum of Fine Arts wasn't chomping to host this blockbuster.) And as you may have suspected, "free" is just a bit misleading. The press release also notes that the affair will benefit the Houston Food Bank. After doing a little investigation, I discovered that it's not the proceeds from the sale of the art that will go to the Food Bank, but the $2 donation you'll be asked for at the door.

Oh, well. Two dollars is a petty thing to begrudge the Houston Food Bank. And if you'd like to begrudge the art on hand your serious consideration, that's okay with Mother Ono, who I presume has more important things to think about, just as she always has. "I think the art world needs more of a sense of fun," she says. "The art world needs John more than the other way around, in a way. To say that I want his work to be 'taken seriously' is kind of an oxymoron."

In that case, mother, no worries.

"Music for the Eyes: The Artwork of John Lennon" will be on display February 2123 at the Renaissance Houston Hotel, 6 Greenway Plaza East, 629-1200.

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Shaila Dewan