New York

Mark Lombardi

Mark Lombardi (1951–2000) set out to arm people with information so they might form nuanced political opinions. Having early on discovered a hunger to lay out in exhaustive detail the dismaying network of connections among corporations, governments, and financial institutions, the Texas-born artist developed an idiosyncratic means of mapping the gist of his research with gracefully interconnected curves and circles in pencil on paper. In several drawings from the series World Finance Corporation, Miami, ca. 1970–84, 1994–99, mutual interest is traced in graphite among the WFC, Colombian drug traffickers, and the CIA, while in Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher, and the Arming of Iraq, 1979–90, 1998, Saddam Hussein and the leaders of the US and Britain are caught in a damning swarm of arrows. Lombardi’s first retrospective, organized by Independent Curators International, includes drawings from all the major groups within his “Narrative Structures” series, 1994–2000, making up nearly thirty images in all.

An avid reader of Herbert Marcuse, Lombardi wanted to preserve a gap between medium and message. Ideally, the grim reality of the facts (all of which Lombardi gleaned from published sources) would jar the viewer out of the state of passive contemplation invited by the ballet of sweeping arrows. Unfortunately, the strategy backfires. By simplifying extremely complex systems, Lombardi allows the viewer to grasp the big picture quickly but also strips the relations of their specific content. Compounding the problem, the lines that join the players—some dotted, some curly, some red—are meant to denote different kinds of involvement, but precisely what kind remains ambiguous. Concrete situations are abstracted into a schematic of unspecified guilt, which both quiets any real sense of unease about the protagonists and their dealings and permits the viewer—whose name is nowhere in these maps of greed and corruption—to simply gaze at the problem, passive aesthetic contemplation having given way to passive intellectual contemplation.

Lombardi’s project has been discussed in relation to traditional history painting, and the artist does borrow his idealized treatment of gritty subjects from that genre. But perhaps his oeuvre can be better understood in terms of collage: Rather than memorialize historical moments, Lombardi weaves mute webs whose fragments must be pieced together by the viewer. Of course, the drawings are impotent before the visitor who has no store of background knowledge, while for the informed, the viewing experience can easily become a knowing, but comfortably disconnected, reaction to a contained system of bad guys. Perhaps Lombardi made his charts so visually appealing to attest to the potential elegance of global systems, to the possibility of an organic, harmonious web of relations without corrupt content. In this way his drawings, if not adding to anyone’s political sophistication, may convey a sense of hope.

Nell McClister