In the art world, the name Mark Landis causes instant inflammation and/or apoplectic emotional responses. One of the most prolific art forgers in the United States, Landis has duped art galleries across the entire country posing as an affluent philanthropist and art patron wishing to donate rare works from his collection. But the "gifts" that Landis is bequeathing are actually precisely constructed reproductions (Picasso, Matisse, et al) that he himself has painted. And his impeccably faultless craft is such that galleries across the country including the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art and Art Institute of Chicago have been fooled. Mark Landis is public enemy #1 to anyone curating and exhibiting art.
After 30 years of prolifically deceiving the art community, Landis is exposed by Matthew Leininger, a determined registrar from Cincinnati whose obsession with revealing the counterfeiter is almost as zealous as the forger’s need to recreate and “gift.” And where it gets tricky for Leininger and those seeking to thwart Landis, is that no illegal actions have ever been made. Landis never asks for money in return for his donations. This is where the documentary becomes fascinating, as it begins to explore the psychological machinations behind this faker’s fixation.
Directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman (with a co-directing credit for Mark Becker), Landis’ motivations are the real absorbing treasure of the documentary and they are as deceptive as his own deceits. As they slowly unfurl, the audience discovers not an unethical fraudster, but a troubled, physically frail and psychologically delicate individual. And it’s not quite clear if he’s aware of his various deceptions. Described as schizophrenic by some, this is far too reductive. Landis appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum as he is introverted, socially ill at ease (he doesn’t make eye contact as is a trait of many on the spectrum) and acutely focused on his art.
Leininger is a character himself, even one who threatens to overtake the documentary at times and whose OCD-diagnosed fanaticism for taking down his bête noir precipitates the loss of his job. Landis’ cons are myriad and complex. Sometimes he poses as a priest, and other times he acts bereaved, creating a fictional sister who has recently died to be part of his duping narrative. In truth, it’s Landis’ mother that has passed on two years before the documentary is finished and while never shown or seen, his constant references to “mother” make it clear she had a huge impact. But to what extent, in any negative sense, remains unclear.
A well-rounded and compassionate portrait of an outsider with some degree of misdiagnosed mental illness, “Art and Craft,” is an engrossing document of immense talents gone sideways. Mark Landis has a level of craft and mimicry that is unparalleled, which goes beyond copying. But its meticulous fastidiousness seems rooted in a mania he cannot control. Soft-spoke and shy, it’s clear Landis has no malicious intent, but he's nevertheless a massive stain on the reputation of the art world that many want to blot out.
The documentary’s coup de grace is capturing an exhibit dedicated to Landis’ forgeries, one meant to further ferret out Landis' imitation, raise awareness of art fraudulence and celebrate his talents (as complex a motivation for an art show as there possibly has ever been). Landis meets his nemesis Leininger, and even the preoccupied man is forced to recognize he’s dealing with an emotionally multifaceted individual, far from possessing unscrupulous traits, and who could probably use some kind of psychological help, too. What emerges here is perhaps the key to the documentary and the psychology behind Landis’ actions: the need to be accepted, the desire to fit in and the longing to belong to a community he so greatly admires. Straightforwardly shot and sensitive of its subject, “Art And Craft” is a intriguing depiction of counterfeit impulses (both wrongly perceived and irrepressible), immense talent gone awry and what lies behind the desire to create. [B+]