Friday, 17 July 2015

Mark Landis' Art and Craft

Mark Landis in his apartment, with his father's portrait behind him
The second documentary I watched on the way to Paris was Art and Craft, about Mark Landis, an art forger. I had read the story in The New Yorker almost two years ago, so to see him in action in this film was fascinating.

He's a curious character, living by himself, doesn't seem to have any friends, his parents have passed away and doesn't have any kind of job, which makes viewers assume he is living off his inheritance.

But Landis has an incredible talent of being able to copy art work. When he was young he enjoyed drawing and painting, and was encouraged to do it, taking courses.

Around 1988, he copied an illustration and donated it to a California museum as an original. The forgery was undetected so Landis did it again. And again and again, for over 20 years, to different art institutions, including more than 50 museums.

Landis will contact the various places, pretending he is Stephen Gardiner, Father Arthur Scott, Father James Brantley, Mark Lanois, Martin Lynley, and John Grauman.

When he talks to the museums, he always gives a sob story, of his mother passing away and wishing to bequeath an art work or two, or how his sister had passed and wanted to give a painting away -- except that he was an only child.

He likes to buy his art supplies at Walmart, even the frames, which he says are cheap, but look great. Then he goes home that is cluttered with stuff everywhere, including the floor, and he sits with the television on, drawing on his bed.

As he paints, Landis explains how easy it is to make paper look old -- by covering it in coffee. And then he would frame them with those inexpensive wooden frames from Walmart. Looks pretty darn good.

As a result many of the museums accepted his paintings and hung them in their galleries. He specifically chose smaller ones as they would not necessarily have the resources to detect forgeries, and wouldn't it be rude not to accept a free gift?

However, in 2007, Landis donated several works to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and the registrar, Matthew Leininger, took a closer look at the paintings and realized not only were they fakes, but that Landis had offered similar if not the same pieces to other museums.

Leininger started alerting other museums and they were not only horrified, but embarrassed. The FBI was also contacted, but legally Landis had not done anything illegal even though the intent to deceive was there. The fact that Landis did not accept any monetary payment made it near impossible to stop him from continuing what he might call his hobby.

In Art and Craft, there are interviews with Leininger, and he is a sharp man, but also obsessed. He was so caught up in chasing down Landis that the museum sacked him for spending too much time on the case during office hours, so he continued doing it as a stay-at-home dad. It's probably telling that his wife is not on camera.

We also see Landis visiting a medical clinic regularly, and he seems underweight, probably because he eats frozen dinners and crackers, and lots of coffee. He seems to be autistic, or schizophrenic, or bipolar, but highly functioning.

In the end, there's an exhibition held specifically showcasing Landis' work and he is invited to attend. There he meets mostly admirers and charms them, while Leininger wants to confront Landis, but in the end realizes there isn't much he can do to the star of the show.

Art and Craft a fascinating portrait of Landis, and case study on what to do with art forgers who aren't interested in it for the money.

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