Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Art forgery is fascinating and, regardless of ethical dilemmas, requires a tremendous amount of talent by the artist (or con artist, depending on how it is viewed). Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker have used this fascinating topic to an off-putting and engaging effect in their new documentary Art and Craft, considering their subject is not nearly as interesting as his work. Mark Landis is one of the most notorious art forgers of the past thirty years, having made thousands of fake paintings from famous artists and donated them to art galleries all around the country. He meticulously works on all of the quirks in certain artists’ work, even using home-made techniques like staining the back of a canvas with coffee to make it look older. Some of these elements do not feel very believable in terms of how inept art gallery directors must be (can you not search other galleries to see if that painting exists elsewhere? Could you not smell the coffee on the back of the canvas?), but it proves that Landis does something unique. That’s especially true when it’s revealed that he donates every piece of work.
Landis hasn’t been convicted of any crimes. It’s a genuinely shocking component of his career considering how many people despise him and reprimand him for his deplorable actions. But he’s a tremendously talented painter that just so happens to use his talents to copy others. Landis’ work makes for a compelling film, and the examination of others surrounding him and looking at his work from the outside makes for a stronger analysis of the integrity of the craft. The incorporation of registrar Matthew Leininger, who discovered the forgeries in more than 60 galleries in over 20 states, makes the story feel like a thriller wrapped inside of an ethical drama. There’s something riveting about how a documentary can utilize genre storytelling techniques from narrative fiction to create its own beast. Leininger discovered the aliases that Landis used, including one of a Jesuit priest. Everything about Landis’ career is built on deceit, but he has technically never done anything wrong under the tenants of legality. His forgeries, by being donated to galleries while not explicitly gaining anything from providing free services to them, work masterfully under the coattail of the law. It’s sick but wildly ingenious.
Landis himself is the center of the documentary, though, and that’s where the narrative’s impact begins to diminish. Landis’ backstory is vividly depressing, with him having a stint in a mental institution in his teenage years due to diagnosed schizophrenia. He lives by himself, buys limited groceries, watches a lot of old television programs, and lives the life of a sad introvert. Landis is interesting as an individual from an outsider’s perspective, but looking at him through his words and mannerisms makes for a rather boring, repetitive film. He has a dry whisper for a speaking voice and sounds rather slow in his thoughts, which makes for drawn out scenes where Landis doesn’t say much. He’s socially awkward and doesn’t handle criticism all that well, and he seems to revel in the fact that he is taking credit for something another person did before him. Not very likable and not very engaging don’t make for a good protagonist in a documentary. Art and Craft does take a quick look at the other elements in play, like Leininger and other art gallery directors that have a clear problem with what he does, but Landis is too often the focus. The film’s 89-minute character study of Landis doesn’t always work, but it’s a compelling story told through the eyes of a far less interesting, simple viewpoint.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)