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'Art and Craft': The life and times of Mark Landis, devoted art imitator

'Art and Craft': The life and times of Mark Landis, devoted art imitator
An engrossing new documentary by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman chronicles the activities of Mark Landis, above, a renowned art imitator. (Sam Cullman / Oscilloscope Laboratories)

On the surface, Mark Landis might not seem like the sort of person who would make for cinematic gold. The man is pushing 60. He is slight and pale, with a bald pate and prominent ears. He shuffles more than he walks and talks in a high-pitched whisper (think: Philip Seymour Hoffman channeling Truman Capote). Newspaper accounts often liken him to the mercurial characters found in Southern Gothic novels. Though in his physical aspect, Landis strikes me as someone who could have just emerged from an illustration by Edward Gorey.

Over the course of a new documentary about Landis' life, however, it's hard not to be seduced by this eccentric figure, one of the most prolific art copiers in recent history. Directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, "Art and Craft" tells the engrossing personal story of this unusual Mississippi-based artist, and the dozens of American museums that unwittingly accepted his likenesses.

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Grausman says she first heard about Landis back in 2011, when she read a story in The New York Times about his work. "It was one of those articles you tear out of the paper and you put it in a drawer," she explains. "I couldn't stop thinking about it. So, I got in touch. But we had to spend several months on the phone getting to know him before he would agree to a meeting."

The footage Grausman and Cullman were able to gather is remarkable. Landis opened the door to his home, gave the filmmakers the lowdown on his life and his family, and even allowed them to record the myriad ways in which he creates his paintings. Some of the techniques are deceptively simple. To re-create a chalk drawing done in a 19th century academic style, Landis tells the camera matter-of-factly: "I just use color pencils because they can't tell."

Landis even invited the filmmakers to follow him along on his doctors' appointments at a local mental health clinic.

"It was a shock to us that he would be as forthcoming as he was," Cullman says. "He was careful. It wasn't as though we called and then he invited us over immediately. But if you think about what may have motivated Mark to do all of these shenanigans, it makes sense. He was looking for people to connect with."

Certainly, the case of Mark Landis is a curious one. He has been plying art museums with fakes since the mid-1980s, giving imitations to dozens of U.S. institutions, from Washington to San Francisco. These range from high to low, Antoine Watteau to Walt Disney.

Landis, however, has never accepted money for the fakes. This means he hasn't broken the law, since there hasn't been a loss to recipients. (It's up to museums to do their due diligence when accepting a gift.)

To distribute his likenesses, he has posed as a Jesuit priest and pretended to be the executor of an important family estate. Incredibly enough, the cameras capture him in action, giving an art copy to a small institution, where he asks where his donation will hang. It is spectacular: watching a man who is so superficially awkward in so many ways, seem so at ease in the dispensation of a drawing that was likely completed just days before the transaction.

"There is a brief moment where one of the gentlemen look into the camera, as though they were going to ask what we were doing there," recalls Cullman, who says that particular sequence was very seat-of-the-pants. "But I think that it speaks to Mark's skill that he was able to distract them from what we were doing."

"Art and Craft" goes beyond mere biopic, however, deftly layering numerous other themes into a tight 90-minute run-time. The film tells an engrossing story — of Landis, who flouts convention with his likenesses, and Matthew Leininger, a former museum registrar, who is intent on catching him breaking some law. The film also tells an interesting story about Landis, the outcast, who often only finds respect when he dresses up as benevolent patron.

But above all, "Art and Craft" provides a fascinating view of the art world, its pretentions, the often arbitrary ways in which value and worth are decided, and who gets to say they are part of its club.

"I think it raises a lot of questions," Cullman says. "It raises questions about authenticity and originality and authorship. A lot of those questions are very 21st-century art world questions. But Mark isn't Banksy. He's not a prankster. He's not a conceptual artist trying to raise those questions and create divisiveness. He just backed into it by his own trip."

If at the beginning of the film you are concerned that Landis is hoodwinking museums, by the end you might just find yourself rooting for him to succeed. This all brings us back to what a terrific protagonist the film has in Landis: beguilingly weird, oddly charming, with his own sense of logic.

"I didn't do anything wrong or illegal," he says plaintively at one point.

Sounds like a real-deal artist to me.

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"Art and Craft" opens Friday at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., landmarktheatres.com and oscilloscope.net. Director Jennifer Grausman will be in attendance this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. to discuss the films.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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