Making Connections

Seated in Lawndale Art & Performance Center's main gallery, artist Mark Lombardi tells me a story: Shortly after he arrived in Houston, a woman friend of his married a wealthy investment broker, who later disappeared. A charred body found in the broker's Jaguar was never, Lombardi says, positively identified. The man's clients included a major Saudi Arabian bank, on whose board sat a prominent Houston lawyer and an ex-governor of Texas, among others. Lombardi's details grow more dense: The Saudi bank owned part of one of America's largest failed savings and loans; the executor of the missing man's estate later became the partner of a major Saudi operative, who was said to have received as much as $250,000 for arranging padded contracts with aircraft manufacturers and to have acted as a bag man for Middle Eastern royalty. Also on the board of the Saudi bank, says Lombardi, was a man who owns a major bank building in downtown Houston and figured significantly in another failed billion-dollar S&L. The missing man's wife inherited virtually none of the fortune she suspected her husband had.

As I listen to this tale, my legal pad begins to take on the appearance of one of Lombardi's delicate schematic drawings, which delve into the often shady world of international banking. Dotted with names of corporate entities and individuals, connected by swooping arrows and notated with brief explanations, Lombardi's graceful flow charts detail the interconnectedness of various banking, money-laundering and political entities, tracing the flow of "hot money" -- ready cash whose ownership has been intentionally obscured -- and the fates of those directly or peripherally involved with it. (More than one offshore banking operative has been indicted for corruption, murder or terrorist acts.) His targets range from the Vatican Bank (Inner Sanctum: The Pope and his Bankers) to mobsters (Meyer Lanksy's Post-Havana Financial Network) to failed S&Ls (Charles Keating, ACC and Lincoln Savings) to politicians (BNL, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher & ... Iraq 2). From a distance, these charts, done in pencil or ink on heavy rag paper and expensively matted and framed, look like delicate abstract drawings, the biggest of which measures four feet by 11 and a half feet. Each large piece is surrounded by several scrawled "studies" showing the circle of connections of a specific character or corporation from the chart, a clue to how Lombardi organizes his information. In the gallery notes, a legend shows that a solid line indicates "some type of influence or control," a double arrow "mutual relationship or association," a dotted line "flow of money, loans or credits," a squiggle "sale or transfer of an asset" and a double hyphen a "blocked or incomplete transaction."

The concept of Lombardi's pieces -- that these delicate, oversize webs contain painstakingly compiled and damning data -- is difficult to resist. There is the thrill of a secret come to light, the frisson of the open FBI file or the newly released Nixon tape. But faced with a roomful of the works, as one is now at Lawndale's show "Over the Line," I began to feel put off. Because of the way in which the huge amount of data is presented, it's ultimately impenetrable to all but the most knowledgeable. The drawings represent only the bare bones of an intricate narrative, indicating "some type of influence or control" but not what type of influence or control.

In other words, it is the insidious complexity of these connections that's made most obvious to the viewer, and not some of the more interesting trends Lombardi claims to have discovered through his research (for example, his ultimate conclusion that the Vatican Bank was connected to not only conservatives who bought out liberal newspapers in Italy, but to terrorists, is not legible within the confines of his schematic).

Hans Haacke, Lombardi's direct artistic predecessor, critiqued the corporate connections of the museums that offered him -- and then sometimes declined him -- exhibits. He pointed out how multinationals fund high culture in order to curry warm feeling in an uneasy public, using the soothing propaganda language of his subjects -- corporate logos, fake advertisements, posed photographs -- in order to seduce and then inform a viewer. Haacke's early '80s political-art-as-activism was part of a general trend, one completed by artists such as New York's Guerilla Girls. But Lombardi, unlike Haacke, doesn't seem interested in changing the way we view a particular entity. Instead of questioning relationships, he diagrams them prettily, as if doing so satisfies some need to circumscribe the activities he examines.

That may well be the result of living in a more cynical time. Today, the papers tell us daily about the money laundering of arms traffickers, the government intelligence operations, the siphoning of money from poor nations into bank accounts in the Caymans by Third World kleptocrats, the drug lords, politicians, embezzlers and bankers who affect us as individuals, taxpayers and world citizens. And thanks to Lombardi's work, we know -- or at least are made to think we know -- exactly how pervasive such dealings are. When we see how the same characters show up time and again on Lombardi's charts, we begin to sense that we're looking not at a centralized conspiracy, but at a powerful network that's somehow beyond our reach. One could unravel and unravel the string, yet never find its end.

Lombardi's work may intend to educate, but what it teaches us is a helplessness tinged with frustration. Thankfully, the artist as model citizen has undertaken the burden of inquiry for us, doing what we should be doing (finding out exactly where our money goes) but don't always have time to do. Like the boy with his finger in the dike, he holds off the information deluge. We need only understand that one of us -- an ordinary person -- has a grasp on the situation, so that we can go blithely on.

Until the next bailout.

At the recent Annual Warehouse Crawl, the presentation by DiverseWorks -- a group show of Dallas artists who use found objects -- caused the most excitement. That was a surprise, as found object art is hardly new, and seems like a deathly boring thing on which to prop a show. It can no longer be said, as it once was, that found objects "challenge the appropriate subject or materials of art"; it's been far too long a while since artists have been expected to locate their materials in an art supply store for anyone to take that statement seriously. If the California assemblagists, with their romantic sensibility, invented the junk aesthetic, then Texas artists seized on it with a regrettable vengeance, as if the worn, the forgotten, the discarded and the patinaed somehow increased the meaning of a work of art. "Reconstructedness," originally mounted at Gray Matters in Dallas, may not be completely mired in this mentality, but it's not completely free of it either.

The mild furor over "Reconstructedness" was largely due to the preferential placement given the droll work of Ludwig Schwarz -- seeing that first certainly raised my expectations for the show. One of Schwarz's pieces, Art Is for the People, is a video taken from an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 featuring an artist character (caricature?) who's a onetime boyfriend of one of the female stars. Schwarz has looped and jump cut the video so that lines from the artist such as "Try to understand, Kelly, the price I've had to pay to concentrate on my art," and the ex-girlfriend's response, "You're not an artist, you're a whore," repeat themselves until the distortion of the unappreciated, unremunerated and idealistic artist into a desperate, depraved and arrogant TV portrait reverberates tauntingly in the viewer's head. Schwarz's other barely manipulated works -- stacks of red and blue coffee cans, a playful assemblage of two airplane-serving bottles of Jack Daniel's with the dregs of spirits still in them and a bright, wall-mounted arrangement of flattened boxes for products such as beer, frozen snacks and a Nicorette patch -- suggest that art lies in the looking rather than in the making.

Schwarz's almost offhand objects are related to Marcel Duchamp's famous Readymades, in which Duchamp simply placed an object, such as a urinal, or a configuration of objects in a gallery. One way of looking at the Readymade, which was introduced during a time when factory-made objects were beginning to supplant art as the subject of popular appreciation -- fairs presenting new products attracted gigantic audiences -- is that rather than represent something, the Readymade asserted the presence of the unrepresentable, i.e. the market itself. At the time of the Readymades, the formal qualities of a urinal were remarkable in their similarity to fine art; today, it is in the utter banality of product design that Schwarz finds his humor. By arranging and rearranging the market's vocabulary (product presentation), Schwarz makes the market his medium. He isn't just presenting examples of his own habits of consumption, he's "painting" with them, much as the Art Guys "paint" with pills or suitcases or bubble gum.

A bricolage by artist Dottie Allen represents "Reconstructedness"'s other extreme, exemplifying everything that's disagreeable about found object art. Allen collects photos, letters, grocery lists, drawings, police blotters and other paraphernalia and then attempts to collate them into narrative portraits. But the items she chooses, while interesting in and of themselves, don't gel -- they too obviously don't belong to the same person, and they fail to illuminate each other. In her piece The Little Princess, for instance, we see a wrapper from a bouquet of flowers that's dated 1992, accompanied by a letter from someone who would "rather be in TDC" than wherever she is and a fifties-era photograph of a family and car. Worse, Allen gives many of her objects a "fetish finish" by framing them, in some cases photographing and hand-tinting them as well. By providing this veneer of hazy color, Allen is trying to make her objects look more like art, in contrast to Schwarz, who assumes that art can look like objects.

The rest of the exhibit is a scattershot affair, with video works by curator Michael Henderson, manipulated photo tableaux by Robin Dru Germany and installations by Anitra Blayton. Only in the work of Gray Matters founder David Szafranski, who stretches plaid shirts like canvas, does the found object play an essential role. Many of these artists' pieces, with the possible exception of Henderson's A Film About the Sky, which simultaneously projects footage of the sky and shows a video of still photographs of the sky, are disappointingly similar to other works in their chosen style or subject. Blayton's book of descriptions of the politically or economically oppressed around the world, for example, reads like much other didactic "victim art."

Among the more successful works are Tom Sale's Lilliputian sculptures, situated on chunks of rock or asphalt, the varying samples of which indicate a truly discerning pavement-watcher. His imaginative additions to these chunks are informed by their irregularities -- a tiny toy boat is sunk into a pock mark, a diminutive golfer is waist deep in a Sand Trap. In Disobedient, a miniature plastic puppy is tied down by a host of even smaller men and women purchased in a hobby shop. These works, like Schwarz's, show that the found object can be useful when it stimulates imagination or playfulness -- but not when it lends an aura of the discarded, the worn or the nostalgic to work that is, otherwise, lacking.

"Over the Line" will be on view through January 11 at Lawndale Art & Performance Center, 4912 Main Street, 528-5858.

"Reconstructed-ness" will be on view through January 4 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.


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