By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)
It’s an age-old question: Who gets to call it “art”? Andy Warhol paints a replica of a Campbell soup can, signs his name to it (with no credit to the designer who originally created it), and it’s “art”, as opposed to “plagiarism”? Eye of the beholder, and all that, I’d reckon. Art and Craft, a documentary from directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, adds a new spin to the question: Does someone talented enough to reproduce classic works of art that are so indistinguishable from originals that even professional registrars are duped deserve to be called an “artist”? And if that said individual is donating the work, is it still “forgery”? After all…as Jonathan Richman once sang, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.”
Such is the strange case of mild-mannered savant Mark Landis, who has the dubious distinction of being considered the most prolific forger in art history. Amazingly, Landis was able to keep his secret safe for 30 years, during which time he took on the role of a “philanthropist”, crisscrossing the country to donate his uncanny reproductions to unsuspecting galleries and museums. The breadth of the works is genuinely astonishing; covering the full spectrum from Charles Shultz to Picasso. His streak ended when Matthew Leininger, one of the registrars he had initially duped, caught on to Landis’ con.
The film is ultimately a fascinating portrait of two obsessive individuals; each one operating within a gray area. While there are certainly ethical issues that can be raised regarding what Landis does, there is nothing technically illegal about donating objects d’art. Besides, as one art expert conjectures in the film, who is to say that what Landis does isn’t a kind of “performance art” in and of itself?
In that respect, one could argue he is free to go about his business, as long as he isn’t hurting anybody (save the wounded pride of a few museum curators). Likewise, while it could be argued that Leininger (at least as observed in the film) is exhibiting classic characteristics of stalking behavior, there’s no law against him going on his one-man crusade across the country to alert any museums and galleries that he suspects may have Landis’ work in their collections.
Anyone already aware of the art world’s inherently schizoid nature will probably not be too surprised by the film’s most enlightening segment, which takes place at a gallery that has offered Landis his own show. The only original in the installation is a portrait Landis painted of his late mother; the rest are his reproductions. Several attendees ask Landis the obvious question, “You’re so talented…why don’t you do your own work?” The soft-spoken (and heavily medicated) Landis responds to such queries with enigmatic shrugs.
Someone else has shown up as well…Leininger (luckily, with his wife, who can be seen pulling him back several times when he looks for all intents and purposes like he’s seriously considering grabbing Landis and killing him with his bare hands). Inevitably, there is a brief (and obviously awkward) conversation between the two. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been reading any of your emails, because I figured they would just be bad news,” Landis tells Leininger, “but if you want to send me any new emails, I’ll read them, because we’re all friends now,” and offers Leininger his hand. Leininger shakes, but still looks like he wants to strangle Landis. Everybody’s a critic, I suppose…