Over the last thirty years, Mark Landis has been utilizing his considerable artistic talents to forge copies of everything from famous works of classical art to comic strip icons. Instead of duping museums and private collectors into paying for his fakes, however, Landis has been giving them away to museums, often under the guise of philanthropy or as executor of the will of a private collector, filling museum after museum with his false additions.
After art museum registrar Matthew Leininger is duped into accepting a Landis fake, he becomes obsessed with the eccentric art forger. Ultimately, Leininger’s studies and research reveal how prolific Landis has been, and how many people he has conned over the years. Leininger does his best to alert the world to Landis and his con, with The New York Times even writing about Landis, but questions remain about why Landis does what he does, especially now that his ruse has been revealed.
Art and Craft is an intriguing documentary on a number of different levels. Landis doesn’t see himself as a villain, considering he gives his forgeries away, yet at the same time he seems extremely honest and aware of how problematic his actions have been. He knows he’s upset people, and no one likes to be conned, yet he continues on, crafting defense of his actions, including the idea that many of his forgeries are obviously fake, if folks would put any effort into truly scrutinizing them. But that’s where the philanthropy angle comes in; when someone gets something for free with seemingly no strings attached, they don’t ask too many questions. As the saying goes, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Landis knows this to be true, and there’s a devious cleverness to his actions.
At the same time, the story of Mark Landis is one rife with mental illness, as he battles with a number of conditions. The process of forging is as much a comfort as is the con of giving. It’s a way of receiving praise and adoration while remaining somewhat anonymous; when he sees his art accepted and shared at a museum, he knows the love directed at those pieces is to him, whether the public is away of that or not. There’s an addiction at work, but if it were just the creation of the art, he could keep it to himself. Just the con, he could come up with smaller ones that require less effort. Just the appreciation, he could release his own creations. Ultimately, it’s all the pieces combined that drives the obsession.
Of course, without an understanding of Landis’ personal history, which the film does a great job of shining a light on, Landis’ methods and prolific nature can seem absolutely maddening. And in the case of Leininger, whose life has become so strongly focused on Landis that he’s lost at least one job over it, that is doubly true. Leininger’s Sherlock is ultimately let down by his perceived Moriarty, as there really is no evil genius waiting to combat him; a face-to-face between Leininger and Landis near the end of the film is cold and, I’d guess for Leininger, somewhat anti-climatic. He gave Landis far more thought and personal time than Landis has likely ever given, or will give, him.
It’s a fascinating film, and it gets your mind spinning. Not just about art, or the art world, but everything from mental illness to what it means to be a criminal. Definitely worth a look.