by Camille Knop, ARCA Alumna '14
“We all like to feel useful. Whatever ability we happen to have, we like to make use of it,” explains Mark Landis in the newly-released documentary, “Art and Craft,” which traces his career in art forgery. “And copying pictures is my gift.”
Landis has been in the news since 2010, when it was discovered that he had donated over one hundred forgeries over a period of thirty years, spanning forty-six museums across twenty states. Although Landis’ actions could be considered fraudulent, the fact that he never sold his forgeries makes them legal. “Art and Craft” paints a portrait of Landis’ character that satisfies this contradiction and exposes a motive that is unexpected yet relatable.
Directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, “Art and Craft” often feels more like a documentary of a performance artist than that of an art forger. During its New York City release at the Angelika Film Center last month, the audience scoffed, giggled, and outright laughed in disbelief as they watched Landis at work. He forged countless images with undeniable talent, skillfully portrayed generous donors under various aliases, and teased museums into taking the bait. The genius of Mark Landis lies in the process of deception as much as in the forged work itself.
Most discovered art forgers are found to be motivated by a desire for financial gain and for revenge on an unforgiving and fickle art market. Artists themselves, they use their talents to benefit from the over-dependence of artistic value on authenticity. Ironically, their soft spots are similar to those of the museum directors interviewed in the film: art and money.
Landis, on the other hand, is interested in a different kind of profit. Unlike other art forgers, he claims he does not identify himself as an artist. Although he enjoys creating copies and duping experts, Landis is unique in that he gets the most pleasure out of impersonating art collectors. The friendly attention he receives from museum staff, although likely as insincere as his act, is what he craves and, ultimately, why he forges. “Art and Craft” traces this desire to emulate collectors he had seen in 'James Bond' films. In fact, his performances are inspired by the films and TV shows he watched as a child. He quotes them verbatim, almost as though they were original thoughts. “Necessity is the mother of invention, but sometimes the step-mother of deception,” is one such quote taken from "Charlie Chan’s Secret" (1936).
Questions surrounding the future of Mark Landis’ work were brought up during the Q&A that followed the New York screening of “Art and Craft”. After having been featured in both a solo exhibition at the University of Cincinnati and in the film itself, it is clear that Mark Landis will have to put an end to his “philanthropic” career. Although he is unsure as to what his next step will be, when asked by an audience member if he would now be interested in selling his copies, Landis replied, "I may be eccentric, but I'm not crazy."
Ms. Knop studied art history and visual arts at Columbia University (Class of 2014).