Documentary filmmakers love peculiar characters, and there are few more peculiar than Mark Landis, the subject of the new documentary Art and Craft opening today at Atlanta’s Landmark Theatre Midtown Art Cinema.
The middle-aged Landis leads a life of quiet desperation in Mississippi. But, what really makes him unusual is that he often indulges in a strange hobby that is, perhaps, his only real interest: creating fake works of art—drawings, watercolors, oil paintings—and then “donating” them under false pretenses to museums. His “philanthropic generosity” has amounted to hundreds of works being given to more than 46 institutions in 20 states over a 30-year period.
The film focuses quite a bit on the practical process of Landis’s fake artistry—he’s repeatedly insistent on how easy it all is— and his history of being classified as mentally ill. He prides himself on masterfully imitating a variety of styles and periods, including medieval icons, Picasso and Walt Disney.
As part of his deception, Landis has posed as a wealthy donor, donor, the executor of a family member’s will, and a Jesuit priest. Unwitting curators, gob-smacked by Landis’s generosity and their seemingly good fortune, have happily added his fake works to institutional collections, sometimes even exhibiting them. What he does is strange, dishonest, even cruel. But because he donates the works instead of selling them, it’s not against the law, so he continues unobstructed.
The film, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman with co-director Mark Graube, also delves into the story of Matthew Leininger, former chief registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, who has devoted himself to tracking and exposing Landis—obsession begets obsession.
Landis’s existence and outlook are bleak, even a bit boring, and it’s a bleakness that occasionally threatens to carry over into the film, which runs into some trouble because “peculiar” and “fascinating” do not always coincide. In his eccentricity and loopy speaking style, Landis can bring to mind the characters from Grey Gardens, yet he lacks their humor, appeal, and sense of drama. But, the filmmakers smartly draw the audience into the story’s ambiguities and mysteries.
Viewers are left to ponder a multiplicity of questions. Like, what propels Landis to do this? And how exactly should one feel about his deceitful actions? Is he a creative criminal? A pathetic basket case? Or, is he a weird antihero, an existential rebel, the ultimate outsider artist? He’s not even attempting to make original art, opting instead for its antithesis: the fake. One is tempted to say that the money-hungry, fame-driven art world had it coming, but that notion seems surprisingly harsh and heartless when we witness Landis in action. Landis comes across as genuinely intelligent yet, if he does have mental deficits, how responsible is he for his own behavior? Our assessment shifts, and the filmmakers wisely let it.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.
Art and Craft is currently playing in:
Greensboro, NC: Carousel Cinema
Winston-Salem, NC: Aperture
Bocan Raton, FL, Living Room Theater
Daytona Beach, FL: Cinematique
Opening November 21:
Lake Park, FL: Mos Art
Miami, FL: Cosford Cinema
Opening December 13:
Sarasota, FL: Burns Court
Lakewood Ranch, FL: Lakewood Ranch
Please visit the website for other cities and dates.