Is Mark Landis the only art forger who puts his paintings into Wal-Mart frames? That may be the least of his eccentricities, as we learn in Art and Craft, a droll documentary that may remind you of Errol Morris’ work.
For decades, Landis has been copying paintings and drawings — by the likes of Picasso, Mary Cassatt, even Charles Schulz — and donating them to dozens of museums in 20 states. His game was to present these copies as originals, and many institutions clearly failed to examine the gifts closely. The film includes interviews with some red-faced curators.
Landis is a slight Southerner who resembles Dwight Eisenhower, but with a Truman Capote voice. He seems to have enjoyed posing as a generous art donor, using assumed names and even disguises (more than once we see him putting on a priest’s collar). He lives in a messy condo in Mississippi with the TV always on, tuned to vintage movies and shows. The place is also his studio, where he uses ordinary, hobby-shop materials to pull off his fakery. (It’s easy to age the back of a painting, he says — just pour coffee on it.)
He was deeply attached to his mother, and traumatized by her death. He also has a long history of mental illness, having spent a year at age 18 at the Menninger Clinic. With a slightly bemused air, he reads us an official diagnosis, which includes schizophrenia. But he’s capable of taking care of himself, and seems harmless, except for his unusual hobby.
Since he never sought money for his forgeries, he’s never been prosecuted. But he did earn the enduring and unwanted attention of one former museum registrar, Mark Leininger, who became a sort of detective obsessed with Landis and spent many years attempting to expose him. The movie shows us a good deal of Leininger, perhaps too much, and his fixation is eventually unsettling.
The filmmakers employ an offbeat and effective technique to get Landis to explain himself. We watch both ends of a long phone conversation he has with a museum curator who isn’t out for blood but wants to understand the forger’s motivations and work methods. Landis, for the most part, seems forthright.
There’s a heavy irony at the end as Landis attends an exhibition of his fakes at an Ohio museum. As he talks with the guests, he seems surprisingly like any other artist at an opening. The sequence brings into focus a question we’ve glimpsed earlier: What’s the extent of Landis’ self-awareness and self-control? Is he play-acting, and to what degree?
The exhibition appears to have positive emotional effects on Landis, but otherwise, the filmmakers, to their credit, refuse to offer definitive answers.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano
ART AND CRAFT
* * * * (out of five)
Director: Sam Cullman
Cast: Mark Landis, Mark Leininger
Running time: 89 min.