“Death-defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy”

Mark Lombardi: Global Networks
by Robert Hobbs,
Independent Curators International, NY, 2003,128pgs.

Review by Carlo Parcelli

When I first saw a Mark Lombardi pencil on paper piece and discerned its contents, I said, “So that’s what a RICO looks like.” It took me a while to associate the elegant pencil drawing with its sweeping arcs and intersections with the kind of organically beautiful forms one associates with the tracks left in a cloud chamber by subatomic collisions. That effect was mesmerizing.

As Robert Hobbs points out in his brilliant and highly functional text, Lombardi after two years of study wrote a manuscript study entitled “Panorama: The Atlas of Romantic Art (1787-1862).” That Lombardi chose panorama for his form is apt. Rather than focusing on the historical details of the ‘conspiracies’ that make up the subject matter of his work, he provides a sweeping view by concentrating on the participants. This scope gives you a feel for the complexity and richness of the crimes he chronicles.

Lombardi was particularly fond of the work of John Vanderlyn and that artist’s "Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, 1814-19." Lombardi’s own "BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th Version), 1996-2000" rhymes perfectly with Vanderlyn’s piece. Both Vanderlyn and Lombardi set their panoramas in time as well as space and provide the time frame encompassed by the piece in their titles. Immediately to my eye, both are reminiscent of the ‘panoramic’, layered drip works of Jackson Pollock or the line and scope of Picasso’s "Guernica."

Lombardi's piece also packs a political wallop like Guernica even though it's a tale of bank fraud, murder and illegal government activity. The bombs that fall because of the felonious behavior on the part of our 'betters' that Lomabardi chronicles can be 'heard' falling in the background of his works from Central America in the 80s to Iraq today. That's if you know enough about what has gone on to hear them.

Mark Lombardi’s work was first introduced to me as ‘conspiracy art.’ That this rubric carries with it obvious negative connotations requires some scrutiny. If levied at the people and institutions that are the subjects of Lombardi’s pieces, the term ‘conspiracy’ automatically carries with it connotations of wild, hysterical claims, utterly invalid. A conspiracy’s proponents are irresponsible if not downright wacky no matter the proponents’ background or investigative credentials prior to addressing conspiratorial events.

Many an American politician has lied to a grateful nation. And ex-pat Eliot must have had Americans in mind when he said “mankind cannot bear too much reality” or something to that effect. We have so many conspiracies arising from American political life because Americans need to believe that their oligarchy is superior to all others and is not subject to the same faults and temptations as others in the world. This delusion must be maintained at all costs and is most prevalent in its mainstream media, the oligarchy’s praetorian guard.

The RICO, which I alluded to above, stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or ‘The Conspiracy Act,’ a Federal law designed to unearth and prosecute conspiratorial behavior. RICOs are the most prosecuted crimes at the Federal level in the U.S. In the legal world conspiracy is hardly the anomaly that the media would have us believe when the oligarchy is involved. When it comes to organized crime, street level drug cartels, Colombian coke dealers that have fallen out of favor with U.S. intelligence, prosecutors hardly dismiss their own findings and very often initiate investigations based on conspiratorial behavior unearthed by law enforcement, journalists, or concerned citizens. It is a particularly potent weapon because it can be used to disrupt felonious behavior without the prosecution having to describe the whole ‘panoramic’ nature of the conspiracy.

In a prosecutor's office, conspiracies are allowed to unfold. On the one hand this allows the prosecutors to ‘turn’ suspects into informants through plea bargains, etc. On the other, it allows prosecutors to step back and inform the CIA or ONI or DEA or Justice Department or any other government tool of the oligarchy or corporate powerhouse when they’re about to be named as co-conspirators. At this point an investigation can be terminated and the prosecutor and his staff can look forward to enhanced careers just for keeping their mouths shut. The information is sealed and conspiracy theorists are made to look like just that – theorists left to blindly fill in the gaps in the narrative. Then it becomes the job of the mainstream media to discredit any assertion by the conspiracy ‘nut’ that can be refuted or seemingly refuted in the public record, or just repeat the naked assertion that “our oligarchy would never act like that,” all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Prosecutorial courtesy is not extended to the independent researcher or journalist because he or she is not part of the game. A citizen trying to ferret out major crimes by his betters has badly misjudged American political and economic culture. First of all, he gets a taste of what a stooge and a fool Karl Popper was when he tries to get information, much less effect a just result as a free citizen in an open society whether it be from Exxon/Mobil or the tobacco industry, which can play the litigation game forever, or Ed Meese’s ironically named Justice Department which can just shut you the fuck up.

As clearly demonstrated by Lombardi’s pieces, the difference between federal RICOs and independent investigations of conspiracies involves something other than the facts at hand. Certainly, prosecutors and grand juries have tools to coerce people of interest, like subpoena power and plea bargaining. But the pattern upon which conspiracies are dismissed as opposed to vigorously prosecuted is itself a conspiracy. Power and influence only flow from those that have them and disproportionately impart their blessings on the powerful, e.g. themselves. It’s simply a matter of self-interest giving the back of the Invisible Hand of the Market to the majority of the world's population.

Thus, the corporate owned media have crystallized a myth of iterative purity about those with power and wealth, once again themselves. By serving up cartoons in the form of popular films and books about corruption among the elites, genuine corruption on the part of these self-same elites is neutralized as fantasy and any attempt to communicate the real thing in turn takes on this cartoonish tinge. Some fictional version of the corruption is taken down in an hour-long TV drama like the principal in a bad Sophocles play. Others are represented as rogue, two-dimensional and utterly evil. Given the utter ubiquity of popular culture, especially TV and movies, these caricatures become the public’s only points of reference. And since cartoons are impossible representations of real life in a culture as delusional and cartoonish as America’s, conspiracies themselves can only be grasped as cartoonish impossibilities, entertaining but all the more easily dismissed. As for the media themselves, no one wants to run afoul of a cartoon super-villain especially when he sits on the board of your newspaper. To credit the media more would be to run afoul of the very tenets of their discipline.

A criticism often leveled at conspiracy theorists is that there is not enough proof, that the timelines and narratives have gaps. There is the assumption, especially among mainstream journalists, although refuted by modern historiography, that the full and objective story is possible and therefore nothing can be true without a coherent narrative. As a result, people building cases that involve conspiratorial behavior often set weak evidence or speculation against strong factual evidence and documentation to create a narrative that is more convincing. Readers and viewers, in a culture not conditioned to believe the reality of inherent felonious behavior among its political and economic elite, are relieved to have the shored up narratives of conspiracy theorists shredded by the trustworthy fourth estate, even if they have little or no evidence that the events they are denying did not occur. The tone of the shredders must reflect the same ubiquitous incredulousness of the general public, and is designed to simply console readers and maintain their faith in and loyalty to the steward class. Any one fact that turns out not to be the case destroys the legitimacy of the entire conspiratorial enterprise and the people are grateful.

Hobbs uses a quote from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to describe how this phenomena is manifest in Lombardi’s pieces:

“When I say that every visible is invisible, that perception is imperception, that consciousness has a ‘punctum caecum,’ that to see is always to see more than one sees – this must be understood in the sense of contradiction – it must be imagined that I add to the visible...a nonvisible...– One has to understand that it is visibility itself that involves nonvisibility.”
Anyone who's ever pursued a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on a delicate topic knows how difficult it is to establish a coherent narrative without speculation and a huge measure of cynicism. The FOIA system set up by the Clinton administration is designed to frustrate and discourage requests while making it seem that information on the government is accessible to anyone who simply writes a letter requesting it. When you do receive the actual documents requested, they’re often heavily redacted leaving you to fill in the blanks. As Lombardi’s pieces illustrate, often this is easy enough because even the mainstream media has reported on events that the government still feels it needs to guard on the grounds of national security. The Bush administration has used this tactic of ignorance to intimidate people who had information acquired through the public domain which the government after the fact decides it considers secret. As rich and detailed as they are, Lombardi’s pieces rely primarily on newspaper accounts.

No better illustration of this can be found than in Lombardi’s piece “Inner Sanctum: The Pope and His Bankers Michele Sindona and Robert Calvi, ca. 1959-1982 (5th Version), 1998." Even given the relative candor of the European press, generally what transpires in the Vatican stays in the Vatican, from bank swindles to the mysterious and sudden death of a Pope. Yet, Lombardi draws a swirling, stinking behemoth slouching across an enormous expanse of paper. Much of the detail that Lombardi includes can be found in Penny Lernoux’s In Banks We Trust: Bankers and Their Close Associates: The CIA, the Mafia, Drug Traders, Dictators, Politicians, and the Vatican and Scott and Jon Lee Anderson’s Inside the League, which a is a study of the World Anti-Communist League or WACL (pronounced wack-el), now called the World League for Freedom and Democracy. There are numerous other books and articles dealing with this set of conspiracies.

The Vatican is not only a modern corporation but a secret society, so its activities are extremely difficult to penetrate and extremely dangerous to navigate. As in many of the scandals and swindles that Lomdardi illustrates, sudden and bizarre deaths are not uncommon. Like Frank Nugan of the Nugan Hand Bank, officials in the Vatican bank scandals were found dead supposedly by their own hand, mysterious illnesses, or unknown assassins. Roberto Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, was found hung under a bridge in London. Pope John Paul I died a month after taking office and initiating an investigation into Vatican banking scandals, and was embalmed less that 24 hours after his death to avoid an autopsy and meddlesome toxicology reports. If they give elaborate physicals to NFL running banks before they sign a deal, think how closely the health of a prospective Pope is scrutinized before the College of Cardinals considers him for office. The bulk and fleshiness of Lombardi’s piece communicates the fetid, rank, stale quality one associates with ‘The Inner Sanctum.’ It’s a brilliant piece.

As for FOIAs, more often than not you’ve got a name or a date or a place, but can’t corroborate it because that name et al. and several paragraphs on either side have been redacted, blacked out. No matter. You’ve waited a year for a reply and the entire xerox is illegible anyway.

That Lombardi drew different versions of his conspiracies comports with a prosecutor’s different presentation of evidence looking for the combination that best makes his or her case.

What’s more, if the conspiracy involves the powers that be, they have a myriad of tools to prevent you from seeing the information you need to flesh out their narrative. They also understand that having only part of the narrative is worse for the investigator than having no narrative at all. Apparent inconsistencies are picked apart by the media, and the researcher or journalist is discredited, usually for life or until he takes his own life, not just the one ‘story.’

Lombardi was aware of this dilemma. Hobbs writes: “Because art’s form – which is always an idealization, according to Marcuse – is at odds with the subject matter it encompasses...” Law, RICO for instance, is also an “idealization” at odds with its subject matter, but prosecutors and judges and juries ignore this contradiction. This is the same contradiction operating between science and nature. Lombardi too seeks to create a potent narrative. Though essentially non-narrative in the strict chronological sense of the term, he writes: “I call [the pencil drawings] 'narrative structures' because each consists of a network of lines and notations that are meant to convey a story...”

Lombardi’s first pieces involved organized crime figures like Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. He missed a larger yet far more obscure conspiracy that occurred during the heyday of organized crime but involved far larger players.

Major General Smedley Butler was a career Marine and the only man to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Butler was a natural born populist revered by veterans. So when he witnessed the routing of the Bonus Army by Douglas MacArthur on the orders of Herbert Hoover, he finally came clean to what it meant to be a Marine in the kleptocracy of America. He began referring to himself as a Racketeer for Capitalism doing the dirty work around the world for American corporate interests. His popularity among the rank and file serviceman, both retired and active, did not escape the notice of major elements of the American kleptocracy. The Duponts, Remington, Anaconda, Brown Brothers (today’s Kellogg Brown & Root/Halliburton), The Corn Exchange Bank, Guarantee Trust, International Nickel, and other elements of corporate America decided to stage a coup d’etat against the Franklin Delano Roosevelt government. Corporate interests considered Roosevelt a dangerous Eastern establishment plutocrat and thought Butler could be swayed by the promise of power, especially because he had been twice passed over for Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Well, they were proved wrong. Butler aligned himself with an independent journalist and set up the industrialists’ go-betweens, recording their conspiratorial conversations. Butler eventually went to members of Congress and hearings were convened. When it became apparent that the investigation, if pursued in a just world, would lead to treason indictments against a who’s who of American capitalist power, the committee went into closed session, then shut down. One fact made public was that Remington was prepared to supply 500,000 weapons to the coup to keep general order by any means necessary. A few of the wealthy capitalists were questioned by congressional staff but they used the cartoon/super-villain and laughed off the accusations. Convictions were confined to low level operatives – sound familiar? – and the mainstream media carried a raft of stories attesting to the impeccable character of America’s Robber Baron class. Most prominent among the media to defend the wealthy upper crust were the Hearst Publications, the FOX News of its time. Butler, despite his previous service and valor and two Medals of Honor, was ridiculed and marginalized. He eventually penned his own book expressing his sentiments on war-profiteering, called War Is A Racket.

This classic tale of a failed coup d’etat is reprised in a book by Jules Archer called The Plot To Seize the White House, long out-of-print but soon to be reissued by Skyhorse Pub. Co. Inc. Of course, in established quarters it is considered the work of a conspiracy nut. And Archer too was constructing his narrative at a disadvantage. Not only were none of the oligarchy involved called to testify, the testimony that was taken was quickly moved to closed sessions. After seven decades that testimony remains sealed from public view.

A more recent example were Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, headed by Chairman John Kerry, Senator from Massachusetts. Kerry’s subcommittee was looking at Iran-Contra and the Reagan administration and U.S. intelligence role in illegal arms and drug sales, money laundering, illegal operations like the mining of Nicaragua’s main harbor, and violation of the Neutrality Act in regards to Costa Rica, as well as a plot by Adolfo Calero and Oliver North and others to blow up the American Embassy in San Jose and murder American Ambassador Lewis Tambs, blaming it on the Sandinistas. There was more criminal activity, but who can reprise such monumental evil and hypocrisy in a mere review?

But as the hearings began to expose the CIA’s role in Iran-Contra, especially its illegal arms and drug smuggling operation, conducted by agent Felix Rodriguez and terrorist airline bomber Luis Posada Carriles between Ilapango Air Force Base in El Salvador and Homestead Air Force base in Florida and other points Norte Americano, Kerry quietly let the hearings lapse.

Sixteen years later, Kerry becomes the Democratic Presidential candidate with strong support from the CIA. Much of this support takes the form of Agency criticism of the Bush/Cheney administration’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq, payback for Kerry's sparing the CIA further embarrassment on Iran-Contra. Or maybe Kerry was contemplating the fate of Frank Church or Hale Boggs or John Tower.

As Hobbs writes, “Houston Post reporter Pete Brewton, who spent several years researching failed Saving & Loans” produced “articles that were crucial to the work being done by Lombardi, who was living in Houston at the time they were being published.” Pete Brewton and David Armstrong at the Texas Observer at great personal risk were digging up information that impacted negatively on the Bush family and the Bush family didn’t like it. Brewton eventually produced a book, The Mafia, CIA & George Bush, which through 394 densely packed pages documented the CIA’s role in looting S&Ls to fund black ops.

Jonathan Kwitny lauded Brewton’s book for its “assiduous work.” Lombardi also created “Narrative Structures” based on Kwitny’s own investigation of the Nugan/Hand Bank swindle. Kwitny’s book is called The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA. Another essential book on the S & L scandals is Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loans by Stephen Pizzo, Mary Fricker, and Paul Muolo.

Intrigued by Brewton’s stories, which were already being dissed by our hometown newspaper, the Washington Post -- you know if the Post disses a story, the author is really onto something, usually involving criminal behavior by the CIA -- Joe Brennan and I went down to the National Press Building and asked at the Houston Post office if we could see their Brewton file. They obliged and we were handed several stuffed manila folders of material, some of which we read there and some of which we copied for broadcast.

The Savings and Loan scandal was made possible by legislation signed into law by Ronald Reagan. The new law expanded the charter for S & Ls, allowing them to function more like commercial banks, actually casinos, without the oversight. When Reagan signed the legislation he was heard to say, “We’ve hit the jackpot.” And the looting began.

Lombardi’s 'Narrative Structure' "Global International Airways and Indian Springs State Bank, Kansas City, ca. 1977-83 (4th version)" presents a small glimpse into the overall S & L swindle. The two entities in the title are at the center of two semi-circles of interconnected confederates and their operations, with Global and Indian Springs as hubs. Since I’m working off the greatly reduced image in the catalogue, I can’t place its source. But the third entity was a group of mobsters, most prominently Mario Renda and Anthony Russo, who began sucking Indian Springs dry shortly after its management was assumed by a banker named William Lemaster. On July 22, Lemaster died in a fiery car crash in Lexington, Missouri.

“The second biggest borrowers at Indian Springs," according to Brewton, "next to Renda's linked financing strawmen, were also brought in by Russo: Farhad Azima and his companies, including Global International Airways,” according to Brewton.

“Farhad Azima was born in 1942 in Rezaiyeh, Iran, to a prominent, wealthy, landlord family that has close ties to the Pahlavi family,” writes Brewton. With the fall of the Shah, Azima’s business enterprises in Kansas, especially his cattle raising, were in deep trouble because sales to Iran evaporated. Global International began to accept contracts from EATSCO, Egyptian American Transport and Services Corporation, as a result of the Camp David accords.

EATSCO... was a company owned by former CIA officer Thomas Clines (close associate of the ubiquitous spook, Ted Shackley) and Hussein Salem, an Egyptian. “Ex-CIA operative Edwin Wilson put up Clines' half, $500,000 of the initial capital of EATSCO. Former CIA Associate Deputy Director of Operations Theodore Shackley, according to his Iran-Contra testimony, acknowledged that he did 'consulting work' for EATSCO, and during that time he dealt specifically with Clines and Salem.” Another big customer of Global was the Department of Defense. Anyway Global was sucked dry and failed and that dominoed into Indian Springs which also collapsed after being sucked dry. This pattern of feeding off S & Ls was repeated by the CIA all over the country, as Lombardi noted. And as for Clines and Shackley being “former” employees of the Agency at the time—that’s horseshit. They were still on the payroll.

Lombardi’s “Narrative Structure” of the Nugan/Hand Bank swindle is represented in the ICI catalogue by his “Frank Nugan, Michael Hand, Nugan Hand Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, ca. 1972-80 (8th Version).” The work consists of a base line at the top (a shorter one toward the bottom) with the vast majority of connected arcing co-conspirators and their enterprises fanning out underneath like rhizomes and generally sweeping toward the left of the paper canvass.

The Nugan Hand Bank, through its ties to the CIA, was instrumental in bringing down the Gough Whitlam government, whose policies were antithetical to the interests of the U.S. Frank Nugan was a con man who claimed expertise in taxes and the law. Indeed, he received or pursued several law degrees in Australia and the U.S., but was known more as a “playboy” interested in making connections and padding his resume.

Michael Hand was a former Phoenix Program Green Beret who became a CIA operative training Hmong tribesmen to become guerrillas and fight for the U.S. Nugan Hand was quite a bank. It ran black ops for the Agency and laundered Golden Triangle heroin revenues. It also solicited deposits from U.S. servicemen stationed in Southeast Asia and Europe, often using retired and active duty brass like Admiral Earl Yates, General Ed Black, and Richard Secord of Iran-Contra fame, to persuade them of the advantages, not to mention the patriotism, of leaving their money with Nugan Hand.

Needless to say, they never saw their money again. Frank Nugan was discovered in his car with his head blown off, supposedly a self-inflicted and utterly fatal wound. Nugan Hand folded. Michael Hand disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. And surprise! There were virtually no funds in the Bank to dispense anyway.

Oh yes. And Ted Shackley was there demonstrating his boundless patriotism, on the one hand by assisting in swindling clueless G.I.s., and on the other by selling them heroin, opium, and Thai stick to get through the hell his corporate masters had created for their own economic aggrandizement.

It might be pertinent to simply mention that the number of deaths, both violent and allegedly suicidal, that occur around these ‘conspiracies’ greatly exceeds any statistical norm. In this, Lombardi is a statistic himself in the same vein, perhaps as Danny Casolaro and Gary Webb. It’s a grim prospect to consider, but it bears mentioning.

In the catalogue, Lombardi’s “BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th version)" stands out for its scope and detail. No description can do any of Lombardi’s pieces justice, both in their factual detail and their aesthetic beauty. But BCCI-ICIC is a marvel. Whereas the “Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group and China Ocean Shipping Co. a.k.a. COSCO, Little Rock-Jakarta-HongKong, ca. 1990s” pieces resemble a bloated beetle ambling along on stunted legs, a comic image reminiscent of the corpulent, sleaze-bag Clinton himself, the ‘BCCI-ICIC...’ image is in cinemascope. As a way of confirming one of my initial impressions of Lombardi’s work, Greg Stone writes in "Toward a Diagram of Mark Lombardi” assembled by Frances Richard at the end of the monograph: “Think about it. Goya gives you topical, political commentary in the simplest graphic terms, demotic terms, with captions you don’t have to read, but that transform the work if you read them...[and] Pollock was mapping the internal, the psychological; Mark was doing the same thing with the existing economic structure. The world he rendered already existed and we were it. The same kind of layered, deliberate, but chance-determined structure that you would see in a Pollock, Mark was making his webs of connections, and the effect is similarly revelatory. We didn’t know what we were looking at when we read about it – it had to be articulated visually."

As Hobbs points out, Lombardi obtained much of his information from mainstream news sources like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But it's Lombardi who has to create the big picture with the help of the Brewtons and Kwitnys. And therefore its up to Lombardi and Brewton and Kwitny to provide us with the more accurate and detailed picture of what our oligarchs and their stooges are up to.

At the conclusion of the monograph, Joe Amrhein tells of bringing a friend from the Wall Street Journal by Lombardi’s studio to see the drawing entitled "George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens ca. 1979-90 (5th version)."

[The Journal reporter] was riveted – he knew every character. He stood there pouring over it for forty minutes murmuring ‘Oh my God...’ Then he went back to his office and looked it up – the Journal had reported on the link between Bush and Osama bin Laden, and Mark probably got his information from that article. But my friend said he hadn’t fully understood the implications until he saw it laid out that way.

And if Amrhein’s friend brought his epiphany back to the Journal, I’m sure his editors discouraged its pursuit. But this only heightens Lombardi’s achievement, even as it re-emphasizes the boundaries of what is permissible in the mainstream media -- and what must be disparaged as conspiratorial.

A sample of Mark Lombardi's images appears in this issue's Galerie .

Additional images & information about Mark Lombardi can be found at the Peirogi Gallery website, along with a bibliography of the personal library which formed the basis of his research. The bibliography is excerpted from "Mark Lombardi: Preparatory Drawings 1994–2000" A catalogue published by Pierogi Press on the occasion of "Preparatory Drawings" an exhibition at Pierogi, Brooklyn. April 2003.