If I told you that there is one art forger who has fooled 46 museums in 20 states with over 100 pieces of fake art, you’d likely expect him to be a shadowy, unknown criminal who has made millions off his exploits. Actually, that’s not the case at all. The forger in question, Mark Landis, lives in a modest apartment in Mississippi, which is where he also does all of his work. Even if you aren’t an art connoisseur, you probably wonder why Landis hasn’t been put in jail or, at the very least, been stopped. Yet because of the way Landis operates it isn’t that simple. The documentary Art and Craft is both a fantastic biography of Landis and an endless fascinating analysis of his work and why it presents such a convoluted issue.
What makes Landis’ story so fascinating is the simple fact that your initial instinct would probably be to dislike an art forger who passes off his work as the originals. But Landis as a person and his motives make it difficult to feel that way. For one, Landis has a laundry list of mental disorders, barely a high school education, and is obviously deeply lonely, particularly after the death of his mother a few years ago. Furthermore, Landis has never profited from his exploits. In fact, he fancies himself something of a philanthropist who donates valuable works of art to museums. However, within his own state of mind, Landis does not seem to realize that he isn’t much of a philanthropist since his gifts are worthless and, even worse, deceitful. Yet because Landis has never tried to profit from schemes, he technically has never done anything illegal.
One look at Landis will tell you that he is harmless. He looks like a caricatured drawing, with an extremely gangly frame, premature hunch, and pronounced gait which all make him appear much older than his 59 years. With a mostly bald head, he appears to be a walking skeleton with protruding ears. He speaks in a labored, hushed voice that often trails off during a conversation, with most of those conversations about the various 1960s television programs that he is obsessed with. Yet this curious man happens to have been one of those most prolific art forgeries in the world for decades.
While the documentary focuses on Landis himself, it also focuses on Landis’ biggest denouncer, Matthew Leininger. Leininger was the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art when Landis attempt to gift the museum several pieces of “art” in 2007. However, upon investigating the pieces Leininger discovered that the exact same works were supposedly in the possession of other museums and that Landis also donated them there. To Leininger, Landis became a Moby Dick-like figure that he is determined to stop. Since the authorities can do nothing, Leininger has instead spread word of Landis’ deception in the hope of putting a stop to his behavior.
In order to publicize Landis’ behavior in the most public way possible, Leininger and another curator, Aaron Cowan, decided to create an exhibition of Landis’ work titled “Faux Real” in Spring 2012 (appropriately opening on April Fool’s Day). The documentary leads up to the opening night of the exhibition while attempting to get Landis to explain the rationale behind his behavior, the history of his deceptions, and the battle Leininger has waged to expose them.
Landis is the type of character that fiction could not make up. Though obviously tremendously talented, there’s no doubt that what Landis does is ethically wrong. But it’s obvious that for whatever reason he does not realize that, or, if he does, he does not understand the implications. If not for the deception, he would likely be hailed for his artistic talent. Yet it seems that it’s not the act of creation that Landis enjoys most, it’s the recognition and gratification he receives for “donating” the artwork. Equally fascinating is Landis’ Norman Bates-like obsession with his “mother.” Considering the way he speaks of her, I half-expected him to show up in a wig and a dress at some point.
Leininger is also an interesting person in the context of the documentary. He fights a noble cause, but it seems that he is using reason to fight against someone who doesn’t quite have a firm grasp on reason. But overall, he strongly warns curators to use due diligence to authenticate all work they receive, even if they might be giddy to receive such generous “gifts.” He fights the good fight, and it’s unfortunate that he seems to have received some backlash in doing so (a point the movie unfortunately does not elaborate on). Though the film doesn’t outright condemn Landis (and considering his illnesses, it’s difficult to do so), it will undoubtedly assist Leininger’s mission of educating museum personnel about Landis.
In Art and Craft, directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman (along with “co-director” Mark Becker) have created an absolutely fascinating documentary that is one of the best I’ve seen in months. Even if you have no eye for art, the completely unbelievable story of Landis and his decades-long schemes are wilder than the plot of any movie playing at your local multiplex.
RATING: An endlessly compelling documentary about a perplexing human being that is a work of art unto itself (9/10).