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TORONTO – One of the busiest art forgers in America has been plying his trade for decades, duping museums both large and small … and not making a dime off his deceptions. Mark Landis, an aging, frail-seeming and deeply peculiar man, has been forging works and donating them to museums simply for the pleasure of feeling like a philanthropist. He makes an excellent subject for Art and Craft, in which Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman tell a tale that has been well covered by print media in the last couple of years but benefits greatly from the ability to hear and watch the man talk. The film will appeal to art lovers, but some viewers who can hardly tell their Cezannes from Chagalls will find the story fascinating as well.
The only son of a globe-trotting military officer and a woman with a taste for the finer things, Landis was mentally ill-equipped to operate in the social world he may have seemed born to. He was institutionalized for a time in his late teens, had little success as an adult, and as old age approached he shared a small, curio-stuffed home with his mother. (Years after her death, he still feels the loss deeply.) But he found a way to maintain an illusory connection to the upper crust: He would create faux artworks ranging from religious icons and Dr. Seuss cartoons to impressionist paintings and visit museums (most of them small, regional institutions) claiming that a fictional relative had died and bequeathed the work to their collection.
Most museums were happy for the donations. But when Matthew Leininger, a registrar at one such museum, found that he’d been duped, he made it his life’s mission to expose his fraudulent patron. We follow Leininger almost as much as Landis here, observing a single-mindedness that eventually got him fired from his job and appears to have strained his home life. He simply can’t abide the brazen nature of Landis’s hobby — never mind that the FBI says it’s officially not criminal, since no sales were made — and his indignant attempts to expose Landis give a dramatic boost to a story that might otherwise have been constrained within the walls of the forger’s hermetic abode.
In that home, we watch as the most humble of materials — premade picture frames, Xerox copies of artworks, glue and coffee — are transformed into copies that even an art historian might accept at first glance as the real thing. University of Cincinnati gallery director Aaron Cowan is impressed enough — both with the technique displayed in the work and with the story behind it, which he sees as having “a performance art quality” — to set up a bona fide art retrospective for Landis. In preparing the show, Cowan conducts phone interviews that provoke some mini-revelations. But our deepest insights into this confounding character come from just hanging out with him, listening to him describe his ethical philosophy in one moment — “I live by the code of The Saint,” he says, referring to the old Roger Moore TV series — and unashamedly recall decades of fraud the next.
Production: Non Sequitur Productions, Yellow Cake Films
Directors-Producers: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman
Executive producers: Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, Christopher Clements, Bonni Cohen, Julie Goldman, Carolyn Hepburn
Director of photography: Sam Cullman
Editor: Mark Becker
Music: Stephen Ulrich
Unrated, 89 minutes
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