The text of the placards beneath the artworks at last weekend’s exhibition of John Lennon drawings in Manayunk did not so much illuminate the drawings as seek to envelop the reader in amorphous goodwill.
Under 1964’s “Come Together,” depicting a group of fanciful human figures releasing balloons into the air, the placard informed earnestly: “By letting go and sending their message out to the universe, the process of thought karma begins.”
Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, presents “Imagine Peace,” this traveling exhibition of Lennon’s line drawings, many of which depict the “parable of their great love.”
Lennon’s music wafted through the space, an empty storefront on Main Street, and the placards echoing many a lyric from his songs.
The suggested $2 donation at the door earned you an “Instant Karma” sticker, adorned with Lennon’s shaggy, benign self-portrait. For the touring show’s Manayunk stop, the proceeds went to North Light Community Center.
Lennon’s broad appeal made for an eclectic crowd. Some arrived in mini-dresses and stilettos, and others were in sandals. Some brought their children; some wore suits, while others toted backpacks and bike helmets.
“He’s my favorite Beatle,” said opening-night attendee Ben Warrington, describing Lennon’s music as a staple of his childhood.
One visitor, known simply as Cosmo, had full-body tattoos creeping above the collar of his shirt. He’s owned a Manayunk tattoo shop for 16 years. “How many times have I done that John Lennon tattoo?” he mused.
An avid fan of all things Lennon, he had not known the exhibition was going on.
“I was just passing by,” he said. “Then I heard the Lennon playing, and I talked to the dude, and I was like, ‘Right on!'”
Gold-capped teeth gleaming, Cosmo launched into a rich history of the Beatles’ rise and his own “relationship” with Lennon. He said he got the news of Lennon’s murder through the haze of a Grateful Dead concert in San Bernardino. The “enormity” of the shooting took a while to sink in.
“I did some heavy, heavy work with Lennon,” he pronounced gravely, as if the musical icon had joined him in writing a ground-breaking peace treaty.
Cosmo said he’s tried to school his own children in the musical geniuses of a bygone era: “If my kids know who the Stones are and know who the Beatles are, I’ve done my job.”
Cosmo is a fan of Lennon’s artwork. “The art transcends the music,” he said. “This is really, really good.”
Warrington’s companion, Katherine Gajewski, had not known Lennon was a visual artist before visiting the exhibit, but the spare, evocative line drawings won her over quickly.
“They’re so pared down, so intimate,” she said. “You don’t see this kind of thing done anymore.”
“Lennon has a nice sense of himself,” Warrington added. Indeed, almost every drawing plays on the artist’s iconic image, from “Nothing is Impossible,” where Lennon walks on water, to the gently arresting eroticism of the then-controversial 1969 “Bag One” portfolio of wedding drawings done upon his marriage to Ono.
Many exhibition visitors remarked on the drawings’ similarity to the offbeat line-work of illustrators Shel Silverstein and Quentin Blake.
In “Land of Milk and Honey,” New York City’s buildings are tall soda crackers, punctuated by a squiggle for the Statue of Liberty. A scrawled red mouth symbolized a kiss to the city Lennon loved.
The framed price of exhibition prints ranged from $750 to $18,000 for “Bed in for Peace.” Phrases like “historical” and “expected to be a collector’s item” were as common on exhibit placards as Lennon lyrics.
“What’s a Picasso worth now, what’s a Rembrandt worth now?” an exhibit staffer exclaimed when asked to estimate the future value of the works.
Ultimately, despite the charm of many of the pieces, the Imagine Peace exhibit trades mostly on the endless pop culture cachet of John Lennon.
“If I see his name, I’m interested,” Warrington said.
Not everyone spent as much time taking in the artistry.
Two 20-something women dressed for a night on the town glanced at the first few works in the room.
“Do they have shirts?” one asked.
“Oh, they have shirts,” her companion answered. They repaired immediately to the gift shop.