The Drawing Center
Through December 19
The Drawing Center presents a retrospective exhibition of 25 graphite and colored pencil drawings, ranging in size from 30 inches across to over eleven feet, of the late artist Mark Lombardi (1951–2000).
Lombardi’s drawings, which have seemed ubiquitous in recent years (owing perhaps more to the striking aspect of his work than to the quantity of his exhibitions), are presented here as a body of work for the first time. Due to the open square format of the room, and the homogeneous appearance of the work at a distance, there is a startling sense of instantaneity, of taking in thousands and thousands of hours of the artist’s time with a sweep of the head—an imposing gestalt of a career.
Reading the drawings, it becomes clear that the elegant tracery of the drawings are in fact intended as maps of the networks of influence peddling, fraud, and collusion that comprise modern power.
Each of the drawings is comprised of nodes of hundreds of person’s names, with the names of institutions inscribed within small circles. These points are connected by a lacework of delicately looping arrows, differentiated for different forms of interaction: vague influence, the transfer of money or assets, or a transaction that was somehow blocked. Sparse red pencil lines represent the friction of governmental or legal structures (fines, sanctions, or imprisonments) on the functioning of the conspiratorial network. The forms resulting from this logic resemble globes, explosions, diagrams of magnetic polarities or the genealogy of locusts.
Each drawing, and its successive versions, is an attempt to explicate a particular scandal, such as “BNL, Reagan, Bush, & Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq,” or “Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group, and China Ocean Shipping Co., a.k.a. COSCO, Little Rock-Jakarta-Hong Kong, ca. 1990’s” (fifth version). In following versions, the network clusters grow and complexify, and like ionized particles, spring into new shapes. Each iteration of the subject diagrams a unique conjoining of interests, a molecule of fiscal chicanery.
While there is no explicit indication of judgment in the work, we may suppose that the artist was far from neutral towards the ethical bankruptcy articulated in his maps. For the work derives its power precisely from Lombardi’s relentless pursuit of that which is unaccountable and hidden—the supranational and extralegal world of offshore banking and money laundering. There is exhilaration in witnessing an open reckoning of the slimy machinations of the global elite. Justice seems to be served, if not in the criminal courts, at least in the court of public opinion by means of a work of art.
Lombardi adopts an omniscient global view—the panoptical knowledge of God. But it appears that the panoptical view is made for God and not for man, for our laws and ethics work only with simple variable equations, and the magnificent sprawl of Lombardi’s people and institutions has the effect of seeming to equilibrate culpability perfectly through the whole system. Without a sense of an initiator, or head conspirator, Lombardi’s drawings establish a situation of simultaneity leading to confusion—of collective exoneration through collective guilt. Who is guilty here? Everyone? Equally? The party with the greatest number of radiating lines?
So, if the work does not serve to explicate guilt, then does it have the unintended effect of negating the notion of culpability (i.e. “everybody is doing it”)? By pinning down each player in place within a conspiracy, in uniform size text, even spacing, and with the same vocabulary of marks from drawing to drawing, Lombardi enacts a scientific detachment from his object of study. This is true whether the drawing takes the form of the circulating network or the interconnected timeline, for in all cases, Lombardi provides only the inference of wrongdoing in his connected nodes and arrows. Without detail or explanation to prosecute the case, we need Lombardi himself present to gloss the connections and relate the narrative.
As argument then, it clearly fails, yet as art, it succeeds in creating a complex ambivalence between the legible and illegible, the diagram and the labyrinth. This graceful form at the service of seamy exposé seems to create a complex passivity in the mind of the viewer, with Lombardi being both the stoic scientist and the interested prosecutor.
This issue arises due to Lombardi’s organization of his drawings according to what theorists Deleuze and Guattari termed a “rhizome” network. Rhizomes, in botanical terms, are the underground, interconnected network of roots or tubers that exist in pernicious creepers such as purple loosestrife. Rhizomes differ from the branching root system of a tree in that rhizome networks are a kind of collective life, and have no center; they branch and grow in all directions, encompassing an unlimited number of nodes. Lombardi schematizing his scandals as rhizomes precludes a sense of beginning or center, and thus a sense of individual culpability. Instead he presents the scandals as more of an ecosystem of relative advantage. He plays with the objective, totalizing nature of the diagram, for in the end they are fluid in time (the versions) and ambiguous as indictments.
This sense of moral equivalency is in contrast to Hans Haacke’s seminal work, “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,” where Haacke showed the linkages between a group of New York slumlords. Haacke became a primary investigator of his geographic locale in order to uncover the hidden complex of property ownership, whereas Lombardi, relying on previously published material, is more of an archivist, re-presenting unspecified arrangements of influence in the nether world of capital finance. While the drawings are diagrammatic, it is an open question as to whether they lead to knowledge, or are rather labyrinths leading to despair.
Lombardi’s verdict towards the scandals is evident only in where he decides to delimit the drawing, for one could assume that each of the players in his drawings is involved in other nefarious transactions, and the rhizome could have easily grown larger and in different directions. This growth is hinted at in the expansions of the successive versions. Through the “six degrees of separation” notion, one could imagine the networks of malfeasance expanding outward like a cancer to encompass the totality of the world.
Lombardi’s work itself exists at the nexus of several vectors of contemporary art: the embrace of drawing as a primary medium, a neo-conceptualist concern for social context, and the common desire to understand this expanded, globalized world in which we find ourselves enmeshed. It could also be because the work simply looks good—elegant, complex, and confident. It is curious to me that we may reason two, supposedly mutually exclusive rationales for the work—what may be broadly called the contextual (socio-political conditions, globalization, etc.) and the immanent form; or to put it another way, meaning that radiates outward, and meaning that focuses inward. It is my belief that Lombardi’s work is good because it satisfies the necessity of our time—art that has a dual nature: the contextual and the formal, the outward and the inward.
The imbroglios of the nineties have been dwarfed by the cataclysmic scale of our present scandals—Enron, 9/11, and W.M.D.’s; it is a true loss that we no longer have Lombardi to assimilate such events within the complex frame of art.
JOHN HAWKE is a contributor to the Rail.