"Equal parts charming and disarming," is how director, Jennifer Grausman, described the subject of her brilliant and almost unbelievably shocking new documentary Art and Craft. Mark Landis is not the devastatingly handsome and suave criminal mastermind one may draw to mind when thinking art forgery— la Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair—yet he's just as mesmerizing. Super slight in build with a hunched-over posture, nearly completely bald and with a bit of a shuffle to his gait, Landis, immediately evokes sympathy from an onlooker. Yet it's these innate eccentricities that one must believe enabled him to dupe over 40 American art museums, spanning 30 years, into accepting and displaying his works of forgery. Of course his use of aliases, one of which being a Jesuit priest, and his fictitious tales of each work's origin likely helped in selling his story. Because it's too absurd to not be true—who would make that up?
Perhaps the greatest surprise and the reason Landis is not behind bars is that he donates all of his work. Self-described as being "addicted to philanthropy" Landis receives zero compensation and instead gifts his forgeries to the museums. And that is not a crime. It's up to each institution to determine a painting's authenticity and whether or not they will display it. Much to the chagrin of former registrar for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Matt Leininger, who is also featured in the film and first uncovered Landis's trail of deceit. Leininger, who The New York Times described as "a kind of Javert to Mr. Landis's Valjean," is an integral part of the film as he provides tension in reminding the viewer that Landis may not be receiving money but he is humiliating and jeopardizing the integrity of dozens of U.S. museums. A valid and necessary point as throughout the film one undulates between rooting for Landis, a hermit-like creature who suffers from schizophrenia, to horrification when he throws on that clerical collar and goes and makes a "donation."
"There's a lot of gray to everything that he does. It's easy to look at it in a black and white way but then you miss the complexity of the story and the complexity of him," says Grausman.
Art and Craft allows the audience a rarefied view into the world of an enigmatic figure as filmmakers, Grausman and Sam Cullman, spent days with Landis shooting everything from his process, which involves primarily materials purchased at Hobby Lobby the local Mississippi arts and crafts store, to accompanying him on one of his "philanthropic" missions that witnesses a museum accepting one of his forgeries.
"He's like no one you've ever met before. He's brilliant, really charming, has exquisite manners and he's very funny. He has a great sense of humor," reflects Grausman.
He's also one of history's greatest and most talented art forgers.
Art and Craft releases today in select NY and LA theaters.