What If It's All True?

The quote is from a Steve Earle song called "Conspiracy Theory." It was also the headline of a New York Times article about the work of the late artist Mark Lombardi, which is featured in an exhibit, "Global Networks," that's touring the country throughout 2004.

For the last several years of his life (he committed suicide in 2000), Lombardi made pencil drawings that, literally, traced the connections between and among the various players in major global criminal conspiracies of the 1980s and '90s: Iran-Contra, U.S. Savings and Loan, the BCCI Affair, George W. Bush's Harken Energy scandal, and others. The Times headline was referring to connections such as the ones Lombardi drew linking both Presidents Bush with sundry drug lords and terrorists. In the drawings, the players float in labeled pods, connected by black dotted lines showing the flow of money, solid lines showing the path of influence, and occasional splashes of red to indicate the death or detention of a conspirator.

This may sound like a computer program rigged up by those conspiracy nuts on The X-Files, but Lombardi's drawings are all handmade, with the information taken from the artist's collection of 14,000 handwritten index cards. And the drawings stand up as aesthetic objects. They are the opposite of those Impressionist paintings that, up close, seem to be a mass of colored dots, and reveal their pattern when viewed from a distance. In the long view, Lombardi's drawings are abstract, but carefully plotted and symmetrical, designs drawn lightly in delicate strokes. As you get closer the details emerge - the names and dates and connections. Somewhere in the middle distance, one can apprehend the relationship of data to pattern.

"WHAT IF IT'S all true?" Indeed. It was a rhetorical question from Steve Earle, and a silly one for the newspaper of record. Every fact in every one of Lombardi's drawings is drawn from published mainstream sources. His first taste of the Bush-bin Laden connection came from The Wall Street Journal. In case you're out of the loop, one of Osama's brothers was a major investor in Bush II's Harken Energy Corporation, and the family corporation has been a heavy participant in The Carlyle Group, the defense industry conglomerate that has kept Bush I's wallet fat in his post-presidency. You can still find these facts in the corporate newspapers, but you find them as snippets buried in the back pages, at the bottom of a story, detached from any context or sense of significance. And no one in the mainstream bothers to ferret out the common threads in all this data, or - as the post-9/11 jargon has it - "connect the dots."

Mark Lombardi did. But, as one art critic has rightly pointed out, Lombardi's drawings show connections, not causality. And the pattern the artist created from the facts is his own. Lombardi was an artist, not a journalist, and he was doing what one hopes an artist will do. He was trying to visualize the spirit of his age. He was trying to give tangible shape and texture to spectral truth. The theologically inclined might see these drawings as portraits of St. Paul's "principalities and powers."

Lombardi's death inevitably raises speculation about what he would have made of the post-9/11 world. All reports, citing testimony of the artist's friends, indicate that his suicide was really a suicide, and that, when he talked about a next phase for his art, he made it clear that he was leaving the "conspiracy" drawings behind. Still, if he'd hung on to life for another year, Lombardi could have made one last masterpiece from the cover-up of Saudi involvement with al Qaeda. He could have started with the great Saudi airlift of September 2001. As the conservative magazine The National Review has reported, in the days immediately after Sept. 11, when there was supposedly no civilian traffic in American air space, the Saudi government was allowed to fly planeloads of its citizens out of our country. The fleeing Saudis included a couple of bin Laden cousins the FBI had been watching for terror connections.

Lombardi didn't see a master plan behind his conspiracies. And I don't either. There is no Professor Moriarity, and there never were any Elders of Zion. There is only wealth and power, and the tracks they make as they flow through the social universe. That's what Lombardi saw, and drew. And it is beautiful from a distance.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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