Most art forgers are in it for the money, but certainly not Mark Landis, the eccentric fellow profiled by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman in “Art and Craft,” an entertaining if rather rambling documentary that treats him gently and without condescension. Landis has been profiled in both the New York Times and the New Yorker, but the elderly gent who used relatively simple means to copy works, mostly by lesser-known but significant artists, and then pose as a philanthropist (or sometimes a priest) to donate them to museums large and small, emerges as even stranger and somehow more poignant when presented on film than he did on the page.
Actually the film isn’t merely about one obsessive—the man who seeks satisfaction from having his work accepted as important, even if it’s under another’s name—but two. The other is Matthew Leininger, who became aware of Landis’ peculiar avocation while working as a registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and made it his mission in life to expose him and end his nefarious activities, even though Landis seems to have broken no law since he never extracted any payment for his forgeries. With his bulldog intensity, Leininger comes across as just as much a one-man truth brigade as Landis does a solitary craftsman with a drive he can’t shake.
But while the directors (Cullman also served as cameraman, while Grausman assisted with the sound recording and Becker did the editing) show Leininger as he attempts to warn others to check their holdings and beware Landis bearing gifts (all of which takes a toll on his professional and personal life), most of “Art and Craft” focuses on Landis as the man putters about his apartment, visits places like Home Depot and Piggly Wiggly to get the supplies he needs, and simply talks, in a low-pitched voice with a slight southern accent, about whatever pops into his head, offering some revealing biographical information in the process. He’s shown mixing paints, running off copies to touch up and preparing store-bought frames for his masterpieces. The camera even follows him as he journeys to museums to confer with curators about where they might display the paintings he’s offering to donate. Under Becker’s hand the pace of the picture is as deliberate and shambling as Landis’ own movements, and Stephen Ulrich’s score accentuates his doggedly insistent approach to things. Meanwhile experts and journalists—as well as an FBI agent—appear periodically in interviews to comment on his activities and try to analyze his motives without rancor.
The culmination of “Art and Craft” comes in an exhibition of Landis’ work—including some of his own paintings, which he produced earlier in his life—that’s put together by none other than Leininger, who seems amazed, pleased and yet slightly peeved that the artist accepts an invitation to attend and holds court, in his disarmingly understated way, after arriving.
Cullman and Grausman’s film inevitably raises questions about the wider art world. To what extent should people trust the conclusions of experts about the provenance of paintings when an easygoing con-man like Landis can so easily pull the wool over their eyes? And what drives a person like Landis—whose past suggests some psychological trauma that hasn’t been fully diagnosed—to engage in so peculiar a game? But while the documentary touches on such broad issues, its real strength is simply as a character study of a stooped, soft-spoken fellow who’s managed to fool people for years and now seems to be savoring the notoriety he’s receiving after his chicanery was revealed—a crafty artist indeed.