At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

ART AND CRAFT

By • Mar 12th, 2015 •

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With the abundance of feature documentaries, ranging recently from the under-the-radar PUMP to the big-splash CITIZENFOUR, both intended to be not only informative but revelatory, it can be difficult for a small gem like ART AND CRAFT to get the notice it deserves. A case could be made that CITIZENFOUR should be seem by just about everyone for its not-on-the-front-page look at government machination, and that Pump should be seen by just about everyone for its not-on-the-front-page slant on automobile machinations. These documentaries are overviews of the actions of vast organizations and their repercussions in society. But ART AND CRAFT can’t lay claim to being useful. It’s merely a fascinating look at art, fraud, obsession, and eccentricity by peering into the inner life of one unconventional individual.

Mark Landis, the central figure, if not exactly the hero, is perhaps close to a contemporary version of an invisible man. With his wisp of a voice, so lacking in inflection, his manner so low-key, if it were an actor’s portrayal (think John Malkovich), it would seem like overkill.

Landis became notable for his hobby–which developed into a compulsion. He’s an art forger. But unlike most infamous forgers, who swindle collectors and institutions into buying their fakes, Landis donates his. He never asks for money; his goal is simply to have the museums accept his pieces as originals, as indeed they do. A skilled artist himself, his forgeries span the centuries, encompassing a startlingly broad range of art styles, from Renaissance-era to modern-day work, from Holbein to Picasso. And he’s equally skilled in his crafty approach with museums, sometimes using an alias, sometimes spinning a tale about an imaginary sister as a way of evading questions.

Art fraud, even purely factual and un-fictionalized, can be the stuff of thrillers–the intersection of beauty, money, history, respectability and criminality. ART AND CRAFT, however, confounds expectations and instead pulls us in by the minutiae, the tiny intriguing details, the complete mundanity of Landis’ reduced self-contained life.

But after decades of his quietly inserting his works into museums across America, Landis crossed paths with his unmasker: museum registrar Matthew Leininger, who developed an obsession of his own and spent years tracking Landis’ trail and exposing his fakes. The catch is, to Leininger’s chagrin, although the artworks may be considered fraudulent, since no money is involved there technically may not be any crime. So Landis doggedly pursues his art, and Leininger doggedly pursues Landis.

The filmmakers, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, evince a classic documentarian objectivity and respect, and are lucky in developing a close relationship with Landis, with broad access, documenting him creating his copies, listening in on his telephone conversations, accompanying him as he shops for his frozen TV dinners. Landis himself genially recounts not only his technique, but the story of his life. Much of the fascination comes from his matter-of-fact candor, as he allows us to watch him industriously set out his colored pencils and carefully dab with his paints purchased at the local art supply chain stores, duping all the museum curators who didn’t do their “due diligence,” as the exasperated Leininger keeps repeating.

ART AND CRAFT hints at a hilarious inside look at an oddball instance of art fraud, yet it gradually becomes much more than that, as Landis’ story unfolds. One curator says offhandedly, “We’re used to eccentrics,” but it’s not so easy to shrug him off so dismissively. It’s a life of paradox and contradiction, an isolated lonely existence amid the accumulated clutter of his parents’ apartment–yet he’s in the middle of his bustling Mississippi hometown, not particularly reclusive, and can be very chatty. At a social gathering, after getting past his initial nervousness beforehand (fortified with a swig of wine), he even presses, “Is there anybody nice to talk to?” and easily strikes up conversations with strangers.

Landis candidly says he had a nervous breakdown in his teens after the death of his father, and at one point he reads off a list of psychiatric diagnoses. He describes himself as addicted to philanthropy, and enjoys playing the role of rich donor–indeed, one expert deemed it all a kind of performance art. But likely the real gratification is the way he’s welcomed as a patron; otherwise, as he confides, “It seldom happened that people were nice to me.”

He has a caseworker who routinely rattles off the questions on her computer checklist (“Any suicidal thoughts?”), and one can only wonder what he might be like without continual medication, if perhaps he might have had his own authentic artistic career, keeping in mind troubled artists of the past, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. As it is, he responds to the perpetual checklist of caseworker questions by answering automatically that he’s fine, over and over. It isn’t until later with a quiet question elsewhere asking him if he’s doing all right that he quietly whispers, “Not really.” Despite his diffidence, there’s a sense of his underlying good nature and even flashes of humor, especially as he describes his “mischief.” We’re left to wonder what will happen to Landis, now that the rug has been pulled out from under him.

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