Mark Landis is a master art forger, who for 30 years, has managed to pass off his work as original to numerous institutions through the guise of a selection of carefully crafted personalities. In Art and Craft, we watch as a grieving brother and a pious priest, meet with museum professionals across the lower forty-eight in a deceitful philanthropic mission to garner human connection and respect. It’s a film that cares less about the moral ambiguities around Landis’ activities, and more about the unbelievable difficulties of Landis’ just being himself; a man with profound mental disabilities.
As a former student of psychology, I was fascinated by Landis, and Art and Craft truly shines when the focus is on him. In appearance he is an insignificant man, small and thin with a pronounced slouch no doubt caused by years of being painstakingly hunched over a drawing table creating his “masterworks.” But for Landis, it’s less about the art and more about the craft. He admits knowing little about artists or their true methods and he doesn’t really show an enthusiasm for art appreciation. But by taking materials purchased at Lowes, Walmart and Hobby Lobby, Landis has developed his own method of replication, that only until recently, has convinced the likes of even our very own Philadelphia Museum of Art. That’s not to say that Landis lacks artistic skill. He is a very talented draftsman and painter, so talented that the various museum registrars and curators featured in the film wish that he would stop duping them and start painting what’s in his head. Which for some one like Landis is probably impossible.
In addition to peeling back the curtain on Landis’ crafting process, the film also documents the struggle of dealing with mental illness, especially when he must confront the possibility that his lifelong purpose of being a self-proclaimed “binge philanthropist is at an end. Landis’ neuroses run as deep as his affection for his parents, especially his mother, who dies shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Her death is something Landis struggles to deal with as a man with a history of mental breakdowns and hospitalizations. Before her death, Landis’ mother knew of her son’s forgery activities, but remained the soul source of support and pride for her son. In fact, a drawing of his mother at the age of seventeen is Landis’ only truly original work.
Despite Landis’ issues, it doesn’t stop professionals from trying to takedown a man they deem as morally objectionable. Matthew Leininger, a former registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is the lead investigator that discovered Landis’ activities and continued to follow him for years at the cost of his job. Leininger and Aaron Cowan, the Director of the DAAP Galleries at the University of Cincinnati, mount an exhibition of Landis’ work and invite him to opening night. During the phone interview between Landis and Cowan, it’s apparent that Landis is modestly flattered at the idea of attending an exhibition in his honor, but also anxious about the public’s attitude towards him. As a man with harmless intentions, whose only connection to people in general is through the donation of his art, when the deception is unveiled to all, what will he have left?
Art and Craft leaves the end of Landis’ tale slightly ambiguous, as it seems impossible with so much media attention for Landis to continue his life’s work. But as a result of the scrutiny, Landis has become a celebrity himself and one can hope that Landis’ mastery of craft will one day warrant it’s own recognition within the halls of America’s art institutions.