Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Art and Craft (2014): A story of an unlikely art forger. By Brian Ebie

"Art and Craft" describes the story of a talented art forger named Mark Landis, who for many years, copied artworks nearly exactly and then donated them to museums around the United States.  Comfortable in all types of media, he easily forged masterworks using watercolors, charcoal, oils, pencils, and other genres.

I first heard about this movie because of a news article on my local NPR station, WKSU.  An exhibit based on Landis' works was coming the the Canton, Ohio Museum of Art and screenings of the movie locally were to follow. We were not able to make it to the exhibit, and the movie only played at a couple of art theaters in Cleveland.  So, I waited for it to hit Amazon Prime.

We watched the movie and enjoyed every minute.  Mark Landis is a likeable person who you're never quite sure is aware that what he is doing upsets museum curators.  Over the course of several years, Landis donated artworks to major museums around the country often using pseudonyms or even dressed as a priest.  His forgeries are of lesser-known artists and are very convincing up front.  Many museum staff are not familiar enough with the artists he has copied to spot a fake, and as one writer put it, are less likely to scrutinize a donation.

Mark Landis Side by Side with Original
Three Women by Charles Courtney Curran, 1894 (image retrieved from Slate.com 5/28/15)

Three Women by Mark Landis (image retrieved from Slate.com 5/28/15)

As with any good scheme, there is always the risk of getting caught, and indeed Mr. Landis gets caught.  Unfortunately it's by a disgruntled art registrar who worked for a museum and was fully taken in by a donation from Landis.  Enter Matthew Leininger.  Mr. Leininger was apparently duped at his previous job with a museum in Oklahoma and while working in Cincinnati at the art museum, became so obsessed with "hunting down" Landis that he lost his job.  He's sort of a pathetic, whiny character throughout, hell-bent on making certain Mark Landis serves time in prison.  Leininger actually wants Landis imprisoned.  Leininger devotes his stay-at-home dad time to hunting down Landis, even to the point of sending him anonymous--and what some might call--threatening emails.  He goes so far as to call an FBI Agent in charge of art thefts to seek prosecution for Landis.

Though he donated forgeries to art museums, Mark Landis does not appear to have run afoul of the law, despite his intent to deceive. He was careful, it seems, to neither sell or take tax write offs on his forgeries.  He was protected from prosecution simply because he did not profit from his donations, and because he directed his forgeries to the specialists in the museums who should have been able to discern that the works were not authentic. 

Alec Wilkinson, writing in the New Yorker put it this way:
"Why Landis was giving fake paintings away Leininger didn’t know; he knew only that Landis seemed unwilling to stop. When he found an e-mail address for Landis, he began writing him as Sleuth 38. His remarks sometimes had a peremptory tone. “What are your plans for 2013?” he wrote. Landis didn’t answer. Leininger wanted “to get him thrown into the slam,” he told me. “The guy’s a crook. Fraud is fraud.” He contacted the F.B.I., where he spoke to Robert Wittman, the senior investigator of the Art Crimes Team, who is now in private practice. “We couldn’t identify a federal criminal violation,” Wittman told me. “If he had been paid, or taken a tax deduction, perhaps. Some places maybe took him to dinner, gave him some V.I.P. treatment, that’s their decision, but there was no loss that we could uncover. Basically, you have a guy going around the country on his own nickel giving free stuff to museums.” "
Having spent a career in the arts, I found the pious rantings of Leininger and other art registrars to be both typical and tedious.  Spare us your righteous indignation.  You were fooled.

The movie examines Landis' mental health, often picturing his visits to a clinic, or meeting with his counselor, or case worker.  It also takes us on a journey through his daily life--watching endless reruns of old black and white television  shows and movies.  Glimpses into the methods he used to forge the art pieces were fascinating as well.  In many cases he worked free hand, and in others he photocopied the works and painted over the top of the copy.  Even with evidence of using a photocopy, there is no question that Mark Landis is a talented artist.  Many people in the movie asked why he doesn't release works under his own name.  He simply says it's all "just art and craft."

Mark Landis Side by Side with Original 
Mark Landis chalk drawing A Woman Lying on a Chaise Longue (from slate.com retrieved 5/28/15)
Jean Antoine Watteau's 1719 chalk drawing A Woman Lying on a Chaise Longue
(from slate.com retrieved 5/28/15)
 The movie Art and Craft concludes with Mark Landis attending an event showcasing his forgeries and his story.  Around 60 pieces of artwork by Landis, both forgeries and a handful of his originals, were part of the exhibition.  Along with the artworks he carefully wrapped up and mailed to the museum, Landis also packed his "Jesuit priest" costume. The art show was entitled "Faux Real."and was held during Spring 2012 in the Dorothy W. and C. Lawson Reed Jr. Gallery at the University of Cincinnati.

Leininger was there to meet him.  It seemed to me, however, that in his casual, unassuming way, that Landis was unfazed by Leininger's anger.  What was even more enjoyable was that Landis really couldn't have cared less.  

in 2015, Mark Landis' health is declining and he rarely appears in public.  He has stopped donating artworks--as far as we know--and is for the most part, a shut-in.  This concluding quote in the New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson sums up best what Mark Landis would have you take away from his story.  He checks an article about St. Mary's Town and Country School on Wikipedia and is happy to see his name listed as "art dealer and philanthropist."  He is worried that someone might change those words someday as has happened on other sites....
“Otherwise, somebody might say something bad about me and change it,” he said. “And then I won’t be an art dealer and a philanthropist anymore.” 

Links of Interest:
"The Giveaway" by Alec Wilkinson
Mark Landis Documentary by Kristin Hohenadel
Mark Landis website
Art and Craft official site

Brian Ebie, 2015