A Great Documentary

Adam and I watched the documentary Art and Craft on Sunday night and we were so intrigued by this art world scandal. Have you heard about it? Mark Landis, a Mississippi recluse, painted and drew copies of relatively famous artworks, distressed and aged them with coffee and strategic layers of lacquer and paint, then brought them to regional museums as endowments. He sometimes went as himself, but he also embodied various personalities, including a priest on his visits. At times the painting or drawing was a gift from his deceased mother, or his sister who recently passed, a sister who actually doesn’t exist.

The catch is that Landis never asks for money, he always donates the pieces to the museum, so his shenanigans are not considered fraudulent; he’s not committing any crimes. Yet, what he is doing can easily be seen as wrong, at least to many people. Willingly and repeatedly duping curators and collectors feels morally corrupt. In many instances, he gifted the same piece to many museums, telling each that they had the original, suggesting a cunning deceitfulness that contains a great deal of thought and planning.

It is clear, however, that Landis is mentally ill. He speaks candidly about his nervous breakdown as a teenager and time spent in mental hospitals and psychiatric wards. He has been labeled as schizophrenic and regularly visits psychologists and behavioralists for consultations on his current mental state and medication. So his mental instability cannot be ignored when one considers the scheming and deceiving that he is doing. Does that make him seem more guilty or less? Does it matter either way?

Matthew Leninger, a dogged and determined former registrar who was duped by Landis has made it his mission to bring Landis down and put an end to this tomfoolery. The scope of his investigation suggests that what’s happening his much larger and broader than it truly is, and one can’t help but find Leninger more than a little pathetic. He has lost his job at the expense of his investigation and his tenacity would be admirable if not for the fact that Landis is so clearly unwell. Their meeting toward the end of the film is so charged and awkward–Leninger vainly hoping to be validated as some sort of art world hero–that I almost had to look away. Leninger is the true tragic character of the film.

I was impressed by how the filmmakers took great strides not to come to any conclusions about Landis or the morality of his behavior. They let the audience form their own opinion, which could not have been an easy task. Personally, I don’t agree with what he’s doing, peddling fake art as special endowments from deceased relatives, both real and imagined, but it’s Landis’ welfare that I’m more concerned about. It’s a quirky and moving film that will leave you with conflicting feelings of dismay and sympathy.

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