George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, c. 1979 – 91 by Mark Lombardi

Edges of Evidence: Mark Lombardi’s Drawings

By Susette Min

At first glance, Mark Lombardi’s George W. Bush Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c. 1979-91, 4th version, (1998) looks like a flow chart or systems designs engineering plan with its curving arcs and shooting arrows from different nodes pointing to other modules in various shapes and forms. Inscribed in these “circles of influence” in neat block handwriting are the names of world leaders, bankers, arms dealers, intelligence agents, drug smugglers, oil sheiks, corporations, mobsters, terrorists, dictators, and government officials. Lombardi’s drawing could be approached as an austere portrait of the global power elite. In contrast to the drawing’s systematic appearance and schematic clarity, the combination of thick and thin, dotted and connected lines, semi-circles and other graphic notations also represent timelines of shadowy deals, exchanges of dirty money, and hidden power relations that span over the course of decades.

The recent charges against Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Gates, lobbyist and business associate of Manafort, of conspiring against the United States and laundering money elicit a feeling of déjá vu and history repeating itself. One wonders how Mark Lombardi would have rendered this recent theater of influence peddling and consolidation of power between the Trump Administration and Russia, and more urgently, what it would have revealed. Already, in Mary Carter Resorts Study (1994), Lombardi revealed Trump’s connections with organized crime and the world’s wealthiest elite. Once a manufacturer of house paints, in the 1960s, Mary Carter Paints became Resorts International, a lucrative casino enterprise, that was also known to serve as a front company for the CIA. In 1987, Trump won controlling stake in Resorts International, only to give it up a year later in exchange for ownership of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort (Atlantic City, NJ)1; a flailing venture, fraught with charges of breaking all types of violations, including anti-money laundering rules2. The latest leaks documented in the Paradise Papers disclose multiple conflicts of interest between Trump and his ties with a number of cosmopolitan elites including his own presidential cabinet who have engaged in offshore dealings, contravening his populist pledge to bring back trillions of dollars back to the U.S. by way of curbing aggressive tax evasion schemes. Any kind of sentencing and incarceration of the Trump Administration will be a big feat, but also small compensation, for the years of unchecked global corruption and money since the advent of the First Gulf War and the election of George H.W. Bush. Put another way, the current chaos wrought on the geopolitical landscape by the Trump administration threatens to obscure not only the profits gained by the Bush Family by way of clandestine deals with the bin Laden family, the Saudi royals, Saddam Hussein, the Bahrain government, and BCCI, but also how wars and accountability are produced and erased under these motley regimes.3

George W. Bush Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens c. 1979-91 trenchantly reminds us of this era by framing key clusters of names, including George W., with palm tree-like fireworks, that explode rhythmically left to right along the page, on three horizontal tiers, embedding him and others within multiple flows and dimensions of global capital. A narrative of this web of connections might read as follows (to contrast with its effect on the viewer in the timeline), beginning in the 1970s: In 1977, one of the initial investors for George W. Bush’s first oil exploring company, Arbusto Energy, was James Bath, a representative for Salem bin Laden, oldest son of Mohammed bin Laden, founder of Saudi Binladin Group, the largest and oldest construction company in Saudi Arabia, and half-brother of Osama bin Laden. Due to a combination of factors—the end of Arab oil embargos and reduced domestic consumption of crude oil—Arbusto struggled, and in 1984 merged with William DeWitt Jr.’s Spectrum 7 Energy Corp. of Ohio; a company rumored to be in the business of creating tax shelters rather than exploring oil. On the brink of bankruptcy, Harken Energy, a distressed oil properties specialist, bought Spectrum in the mid 1980s, and invited George W. to be on its board of directors. Harken was led at the time by Alan G. Quasha, an attorney with no experience in the oil business, but who had financial connections to Compagnie Financiere Richemont AG (a Swiss based investment company), Harvard Management Company, and Aeneas Venture Corp, and whose father was also an attorney and close supporter of president Ferdinand Marcos. And despite the company having consistent financial troubles through the 1990s, in which the company suffered millions of dollars in losses, investors continued to pour money into Harken, such as Salem bin Laden and Jackson T. Stephens, founder of one of the largest investment banking firms of Wall Street, and one of the richest people in Arkansas, who secured $25 million dollars from the Union Bank of Switzerland, a subsidiary of Bank of Credit and Commerce International (better known as BCCI). By investing money into Harken, Sheikh Abdullah Taha Bakhsh, former director of Saudi Arabia’s income tax department, and Khalid Bin Mahfouz, a shareholder at BCCI, were able to purchase not only a stake in the company, but also power and foreign influence in the United States.

Central to all these transactions was BCCI, which closed in 1991, with losses estimated at more than $20 billion dollars, bringing with it the collapse of one of the largest criminal enterprises in history. The U.S. prosecution of BCCI and its laundering of money, engagement in extortion, and blackmail, facilitation of income tax evasion, and financing of illegal arms trafficking and global terrorism was criticized in the press at the time as sloppy and sluggish, due in part to stonewalling by then Assistant Attorney General Robert S. Mueller (now special counsel to oversee the investigation of Trump and his ties to Russian officials). Doing very little to follow up on critical errors made by the Justice Department, and attributing culpability of BCCI’s long list of serious misconduct to smaller banking institutions and mid-level BCCI officials, Lombardi’s drawing hints at a different accounting of not only wrong doing, but how the different relations depicted influenced and/or circumscribed foreign policy.

Drawing on and departing from the tradition of history painting and its moral imperatives, Lombardi’s drawings offer less a clash of civilizations than an updated way of representing imperialism and global capital, framing key players by a set of lines that radiate from their names. What first began as a way to make clear the links and cross-references of bits and pieces of information about various bank frauds told by a lawyer-friend in combination with publicly accessible documents and information he found during this research, Lombardi’s flow charts became according to Devon Golden, an ‘aha!’ moment in which the artist found the form to match his curiosity and interest in the world of corporate finance and government corruption.4 By probing various connections and following different money trails, Lombardi’s narrative diagrams are sketches of his thought process, but also part of a long legacy of institutional critique, one that goes beyond the links between money, art and politics. It’s not hard to discern the political connections Lombardi’s work has with the likes of Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky, et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971) and Fahrettin Örenli’s Conspiracy Wall (2014), and the stylistic similarities with Beth Campbell’s My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances (1999-present) and Janet Cohen’s Location and Time Drawings. What is singular and remarkable about Lombardi’s understated drawings is its currency in demystifying the relationships between corporations and countries, petro-capitalism and U.S. geopolitical objectives.

In contrast to searching on Google about George Bush and Harken Energy—a telling of events through linear narrative form—Lombardi’s mark making process entails gleaning and paring down the details of the numerous financial transactions, asset transfers, vested sales, and bail outs—translating and transcribing the circulation of money, by way of dotted lines—and inscribing on paper a combination of dense lines and reticulate webs that lead to a catalogue or register of names. Here, viewers might be reminded of Don DeLillo’s The Names (1982) whose protagonist, James Axton, narrates a tale of risk analysis along with his interactions with corporations and intelligence agencies. Whereas the novel gets bogged down in plot twists and hidden secrets in its presentation of concealed networks of influence, Lombardi’s tale of this parallel subculture appears light, almost translucent, rendering in drawing what DeLillo attempts to show through fiction: “…a naked structure [of] … abstract structures and connective patterns. A piece of mathematics.”5 I refer to DeLillo here, because he shares with Lombardi an ambitious attempt to push through the spectacle and the “sightlines of living history.” DeLillo, in his attempt to push the limits of literary realism, felt he “had to reduce the importance of people. The people had to play a role subservient to pattern, form, and so on.” In contrast, in Lombardi’s narrative structures, the interactions of his international cast of characters become part of a larger syntax and design related to capitalism’s stranglehold on government and society, which at the same time is hinted at, but never directly articulated, leaving his drawings open-ended, defying closure and fixed readings.

Wary of how knowledge comes to us in the form of decontextualized information, Lombardi’s drawings, taken with his index cards, which he used to synthesize his understanding of a particular event or person and was part of his artistic practice, resist the way this overflow of knowledge can erode the ability to know what’s really going on, i.e. the truth.6It is almost impossible not to infer in his drawings, an underworld of political intrigue, but rather than throwing furious amounts of data on the page as proof of such activities, Lombardi converts this array of knowledge into different versions that I want to suggest cumulatively become edges of evidence. Resisting the positivist demand for literal connections of these different relations, Lombardi deploys as formal elements the material relevance and associations of these once obscure power relations to other forms of evidence, the latter contingent on the observer to uncover and make the connections. The clean and accessible two-dimensional presentations of Lombardi’s narrative structures meet our cultivated desire and pleasure for beautiful objects to be orderly and symmetrical, inviting the viewer to come up close and scrutinize one of his drawings by following the different lines and looking “obliquely at the edges of things, where they come together with other things.”7

His drawings also share a clean quality of information design in which his landscapes of seedy insider trades, duplicitous bailouts, and shady family connections are able to escape the “flatland” of uninspired data presentation, to borrow a term from Edward Tufte, but with space on the page to spare. Lombardi’s work shares much with the tenets of Tufte’s Envisioning Information (1990) with regard to form, as well as a common agenda—“Tell the truth. Show the data in its full complexity. Reveal what is hidden…Let the viewers make their own discoveries”— and perhaps even an aversion to technology8. By, as Tufte puts it, “removing as much visible weight as possible from the display and [playing] up the eloquence of empty space,” Lombardi’s drawings are unmistakably works of art that, at the same time, interpellate viewers of his work into witnesses9. His artistic practice merges aesthetics and ethics by calling upon the observer-cum-witness to take on the responsibility of etching these traces deep into the surface, to resist repression or erasure of such forms, and follow up on fleshing out this evidence and associations of the various relations depicted in order to challenge this profane vision of American democracy as well as to act and restate the demand for public knowledge and nuanced details that point to larger complex realities and multi-faceted truths.

  1. For more, see: Russ Buetnner and Charles V. Bagli, How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions, New York Times, June 11, 2016 (last accessed November 14, 2017)
  2. Jim Zarroli, Looking Into Trump Campaign’s Russia Ties, Investigators Follow the Money, NPR, May 15, 2017 (last accessed November 14, 2017)
  3. For more, see: Alan Friedman and Amy Goodman, The Reagan-Saddam Connection: We Create These Monsters and When It’s Not Convenient We Cover Them Up, Democracy Now, June 9, 2004. (last accessed November 14, 2017)
  4. Frances Richard, Toward a Diagram of Mark Lombardi, Richard’s rich and insightful essay is a must-read about Lombardi’s artwork and practice.
  5. Don DeLillo, “An Interview with Don DeLillo (and Thomas LeClair/1982),” Edited by Thomas DePietro, Conversations with Don DeLillo (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005) 11.
  6. The 14,000 three-by-five inch index cards include condensed bullet-point entries on multinational corporations, individuals, and his own friends, organized in alphabetical order. The notecards are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  7. Clifford Geertz, “The Near East in the Far East,” Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays, edited by Fred Inglis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) 183.
  8. Michael H. Martin, The Man Who Makes Sense of Numbers, Fortune, October 27, 1997.
  9. Edward Tufte quoted by Robert Hobbs in Mark Lombardi: Global Networks (New York: Independent Curators International, 2003) 43