John Lennon, arguably the most iconic of the Beatles, was best known as a musician and a poet, a social rebel and a tireless proponent of world peace.
The anniversary of Lennon’s death on Dec. 8, 1980, is fueling renewed appreciation of his life, evident locally in exhibitions at Joannne Artman Gallery and Pacific Edge Gallery, but also stirring some controversy among the art cognoscenti.
Artman’s “Because the World is Round,” a titled derived from a Beatles song, features art inspired by the group and also interpretations of the era in which they flourished.
Pacific Edge’s “Remembering John: A Tribute to the Art of John Lennon,” illuminates a lesser known facet of the man, that of an artist inspired by whimsy and humor, his devotion to Yoko Ono and their son Sean, and his driving quest for world peace. Few know that Lennon had attended the Liverpool College of Art before becoming a pop icon. Lennon produced black and white sketches that fill at least three books, cartoon-like drawings and illustrations, all in black-and white. Ono has offered reproductions of these works and, in order to make them more saleable, colorized several. The Pacific Edge exhibit offers 30 limited editions of Lennon’s artwork and lyrics.
Florida artist Gary Arseneau scoffs at the exhibition’s authenticity, insisting that the works should not be sold as Lennon’s, citing U.S. Customs rules defining artistic prints of a limited number as “wholly executed by the hand of the artist.”
“Dead men don’t make lithographs,” he said. “Ultimately all post 1986 pieces are fakes. Yoko is ripping people off.”
Pacific Edge owner Paul C. Jillson dismisses such claims as based on 19th century standards and as the ranting of someone who has been on a one-man crusade trying to discredit reproductions of works by Lennon and others by Picasso and Dali as forgeries.
“Arseneau is working from secondary sources. Yoko makes all decisions about which works to reproduce and which to color. She does not offer originals for sale,” said Jillson. “Besides, Arseneau has never seen a Lennon original and neither have I, so I can’t begin to address the issue.”
Arseneau claims Ono has altered many works via additions of characters and lines, stamped with Lennon’s signature and special insignia (a Chinese-inspired chop mark) and her own signature. The works also bear the printers/publisher’s mark.
For example, Lennon’s “War is Over,” is a new release featuring a black and white line drawing of him and Ono sitting atop of a cage-like structure and holding peace signs. Both are nude and shaggy-haired, depicted as cartoons rather than likenesses. The gallery offers it as a “hand pulled serigraph measuring 22’’x 15” and as individually signed by Yoko Ono Lennon. It is limited to 325 editions. (A comprehensive brochure explaining the processes involving production of Lennon art is available to gallery visitors.)
On the other hand, the gallery is offering a few rare original lithographs from Lennon’s “Bag One” series that are signed by Lennon and a drawing, once owned by a Japanese collector, that he made on a 1977 trip to Japan.
Jillson, who opened his gallery in 1987, said Ono and the John Lennon Estate sanction the current exhibition. “John is a cultural icon and I am proud to be associated with him. I put my trust in Yoko and I think people should just celebrate John and his life,” he said.