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.

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Shaila Dewan