Knocking out the first-rate forgeries that fooled 60 American museums? That was a curiously mundane miracle, something for Mark Landis to do while watching TV. A frail and ascetic Mississippian who resembles Michael Stipe playing Truman Capote, Landis sketched and painted minor Currans, Averys, and Cassatts with one eye on last century’s reruns. He could carry on a conversation as he flipped back and forth between a print of the original and his quick copy, committing to memory a line or brushstroke and then re-creating it with all the thought a military barber gives to buzzing any individual head. As Landis tells it, this “memory trick” is just a thing that he has always been able to do: “In Sunday school, they always tell everybody to make use of your gifts,” he says in the sympathetic yet gently unnerving doc Art and Craft. “And copying pictures is my gift.”
That sense of godly duty colors the next phase of Landis’s troublemaking. Again and again this recluse would pack up his handiwork, assume a new name, and schlep around the U.S., conning regional museums with the story that a dead sister or mother had bequeathed them these forgotten sketches and paintings. He called this his “philanthropy”; sometimes he dressed as a priest. “You can learn everything you need to be a good priest from the Father Brown DVD series,” he says, the words touched with a blasé pridefulness, like he’s telling us a truth so obvious it shouldn’t need to be spoken.
Landis wasn’t asking for money, and he had forged receipts and letters of provenance from the great auction houses; plus, the art itself usually wasn’t the biggest of big-ticket items — there were plenty of reasons the museums themselves overlooked the fact that Landis’s frames came from big-box stores, or that he artificially aged his canvases with smeared coffee, or that, often, other institutions already counted these same pieces in their collections.
Was this a crime? A prank? The con of an egotist eager to prove he belonged on gallery walls? Or acts of gently deluded kindness? Landis’s explanation: “I went on philanthropic trips in Mother’s car.” Art and Craft lets museum registrars sputter about getting duped (one insists Landis should be in jail). The film devotes a clutch of scenes to Matthew Leininger, the onetime museum registrar who exposed Landis’s fraud with an online image search, but its 90 minutes mostly steep us in Landis’s hermetic existence. He paints. He watches
TV. He worries aloud that his father, who was too honest to make it as a businessman, must be disappointed in him. He measures time by how many years it’s been since the hurricane hit or his mother passed. He tells us that in Bible school he was called a bright but mischievous boy, and at the Menninger Clinic he was diagnosed as schizophrenic — but that the doctors were impressed by that memory trick.
Despite some cutesiness, the film’s a fascinating portrait of loneliness, of talent undirected toward purpose, of the mysteries of the mind. Hunched and trim, he shuffles through the Piggly Wiggly, or from his microwave to his television, stoic and moving even as Stephen Uhlrich’s plunking score smothers his life in wistful quirk. There are too many scenes of him headed no place in particular, but the filmmakers admirably avoid making any pat conclusions. They don’t even cue us to laugh when the curators of Landis’s inevitable gallery show don plastic gloves to handle copies Landis has sent — hobbywork that, back in his apartment, sat in careless stacks, ready for Walmart frames.