A Tale of Fraud and Deceit

By Jeanette Jones

Art and Craft (2014)
Directed by: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman,
Mark Becker

Running time: 89 minutes

“I always wanted to be a philanthropist.”

So says Mark A. Landis, the strangely compelling figure at the centre of the documentary film Art and Craft. It’s an engrossing story, with all the ingredients of a classic art caper, and a strikingly incongruous, real-life anti-hero.

For over 20 years, Landis distributed his own, forged copies of fine art pieces to museums and galleries throughout the United States, until he was exposed by one stubbornly persistent museum registrar in Oklahoma. He donated forgeries under numerous pretenses and identities, most often pretending to be a grieving relative who made donations in honour of the deceased. On other occasions, he has impersonated a priest.

A slight, balding man with stooped posture and a shuffling gait, Landis seems an unlikely criminal, and in fact he has committed no crime: Because all of his forgeries were given as gifts, no laws were broken. The moral ambiguity of the act isn’t lost on Landis, who refers to his own behaviour as “mischievous,” but he doesn’t seem to recognize any potential for harm.

The film introduces us to a handful of the chagrined and sheepish museum directors duped by Landis. They generally seem to accept responsibility for being conned, until Matthew Leininger, former registrar at the Oklahoma City Art Museum, who refused to let the fraud continue— at the expense of his job. The documentary pivots on the unfolding game of cat and mouse between Leininger and Landis, but it’s the peculiar force of Landis’ personality that commands attention.

Landis was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 17, and it’s not always perfectly clear where he draws the line between fact and fiction, or how much space he grants his fantasies within the reality of his life. His soft, halting delivery and child-like morality clash with an arguably shrewd and highly intelligent personality.  He is oddly charming, and utterly fascinating.

Once caught in his prank, Landis is completely transparent about his process and the tactics that saw his reproductions added to dozens of collections. Slouching through the aisles of his local Hobby Lobby, he shows us what he used to produce forgeries that fooled curators in at least 20 states. Returning to the clutter of his small condo, a bit of acrylic paint, a sponge, a rag, and some coffee are all it takes to create a masterpiece. Landis emulates fine art with extraordinary talent and astonishing speed. Every room in his apartment is filled with teetering stacks of the art books and magazines he draws his work from. Surfaces are piled with his paintings and sketches.

Weaving through a comic tale of fraud and deceit, this is ultimately a story about isolation and the deeply human desire for connection, as Landis, in his own off-kilter way, tries to make use of his talent in the wider world. But the details speak eloquently for themselves, and the directors are sometimes heavy-handed in their effort to reveal. There’s an excess of spectacle in the frequent, extreme close-ups of Landis, a few too many scenes in which he sits alone in front of the television, eating his microwave dinner.

Running an hour and a half, the film is perhaps longer than it needs to be. Even so, I walked away feeling that I could have spent much more time in the strange company of Mark A. Landis.