Some artists spend their entire lives trying to create work special enough to be displayed in a museum. Mark Landis has discovered a shortcut: By copying existing paintings and then donating the knockoffs to institutions grateful to expand their holdings, he’s finagled his way into respected collections across the country. Technically, Landis doesn’t appear to have broken any laws, and even if he had, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s charitable “Art and Craft” seems more admiring than reproachful of the eccentric con artist. Instead of facing punishment for all those forgeries, Landis gets a quizzical portrait of his own.
In the tradition of “Crumb” and the early films of Errol Morris, this crazy-gazing docu — acquired by Oscilloscope in advance of its Tribeca Film Festival premiere — never presumes to be much more than an extended version of the kind of story one might expect to see briefly spotlighted on “60 Minutes.” Even so, all sorts of interesting questions swirl beneath the surface, while everyone in the film seems to be asking the same one: Why, if Landis is capable of imitating other artists at such a high level of skill, doesn’t he just try painting an original work from scratch? (Minutes before the end, the pic suggests an alternative channel for his talents: “returning” missing or stolen artworks to their owners.)
Oddly, though making convincing forgeries seems to come rather easily to Landis, who uses supplies available at virtually any hobby shop, it’s getting to play “the philanthropist” that seems to drive his behavior. Landis assumes different names and disguises before approaching various institutions about making his donations, going so far as to don a clerical collar when appearing under the alias of “Father Scott.” The crew accompanies Landis on several of these bogus missions, layering on sultry caper music from composer Stephen Ulrich to heighten the effect.
As hobbies go, Landis’ compulsive habit demands enormous patience at every step. He has painted (and donated) certain paintings multiple times over the years, and the helmers take an almost unseemly delight in ticking off the many museums he’s duped (at least 46 in all). Are the individuals in charge of these collections too trusting? Do Landis’ activities somehow cast doubt on the provenance of other artworks around the world? Perhaps, though this soft-spoken, hunch-shouldered individual seems pretty atypical, while visits to a local mental health clinic and repeated Freudian allusions to his dead mother position him as some sort of pathetic savant.
Somehow, Landis appears to have triggered the suspicions of only one official over three decades of such activities. However, in Matthew Leininger, Landis may have finally crossed the wrong registrar, as the former Oklahoma City Museum of Art employee seems to have made it a personal mission to bring these dishonest shenanigans to an end. Though the Landis-Leininger dynamic gives the film some semblance of being a cat-and-mouse game, the stakes are incredibly low for what seems like a victimless crime. “He wasted a lot of my time,” complains Leininger, though no one would say the same about the film, which builds to a big art show where Landis’ forgeries are presented en masse, giving the public the chance to tell this unusually crafty “artist” exactly what they think.