Movie review: Art and Craft (2014)

Art and Craft is a quirky sort of documentary. Actually, maybe it is more the subject matter that is quirky.

The film focuses on Mark Landis who produces works of art that are replicas of originals and then gives them away to museums. Because he is not selling the pieces, he isn’t technically committing fraud, though it sure feels like it.

Since 1985, he has given away over 100 pieces to 46 museums in 20 states. Often he gives away the same piece to different places, which is how people finally caught on to him and his shenanigans. Matthew Leininger, a duped registrar at one of these museums, has almost obsessively devoted himself to uncovering all the forgeries that Landis has donated and to alerting the art community about him.

No doubt that Mark is talented. He can sketch or paint whatever he sets his mind to copy. He knows the materials to use to make it look as though the paper or canvas or material is old.

Why doesn’t he create his own original art? This isn’t entirely clear. He has created original works. Clearly he has artistic talent that is not limited to copying existent works of art. But for some reason, he doesn’t feel drawn to produce original art. Similarly, he studied photography when he was young but gave it up: there was literally nothing he wanted to take a photo of. Taking photos is an act of creating something original. Instead, Landis sees beauty in creating replicas.

Why does he give away the replicas that he makes as art, passing them off as the originals? Making them gives him a sense of purpose. As a philanthropist, he is treated well, much better than he is treated when he is himself.

Much of the documentary includes camera time with Mark at his home and in his car. Mark is quite open, letting people into his life. He shares his thoughts about life, himself, and art. The movie accompanies him on trips to a hospital and a visit from his case worker. Mark is a longtime sufferer of schizophrenia, personality disorders, and depression. He regulates his anxiety with drinking and smoking. He repeatedly assures health care and social workers that he is taking his meds.

His apartment is in shambles with papers and items stacked haphazardly. The apartment had been his mother’s. He moved in with her after the hurricane (Katrina?). She has since passed away, which was clearly a traumatic event for him. He spends his days in the squalor of the apartment, painting and watching TV. I wondered where the funds come from that support him.

He speaks quite freely with Aaron Cowan, an art director at the University of Cincinnati. Landis ends up sending Cowan dozens and dozens of his works of art for a special exhibit about himself. On opening night, Landis is treated with reverence by attendees of the exhibit. These art experts and artists are clearly in awe of him, stressing the talent he has. But Landis does not view himself in the same way. He is not a talented artist, just someone who has a passion. Landis explicitly seeks out young artists to talk to at the exhibit but ends up leaving early.

He readily promises Matthew Leininger at the exhibit to stop giving forged pieces of art to museums. Since creating this artwork has been the focus and joy of his life for at least 30 years, the casualness of his promise is striking. What will give him a sense of purpose? What will give him that sense of self-worth from people treating him well as a philanthropist?

It is not actually clear to me that he did stop. Or didn’t stop. The documentary was made several years ago. A quick search of the Internet shows that he can be commissioned to produce works of art from personal photos. It seems he is channeling his talent for replication to a more savory enterprise. My hope is that it gives him a sense of purpose and fills him with the joy that creating and giving away forged art did.

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