Portrait of the Artist as a Forger: “Art and Craft” to air on PBS

Art and Craft (2014), directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman and co-directed by Mark Becker.

Art and Craft (2014), directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman and co-directed by Mark Becker.

Mark Landis is a curious little man, aged 60 years but looking much older, with a high-pitched, mumbly voice, pronounced ears and a residual wisp of hair at the top of his head. Known to dress up at times as a Jesuit priest, he would surely be played by John Malkovich in the movie of his life, but for the fact that his life lacks the requisite drama for a Hollywood biopic.

As it happens, Landis plays himself in the documentary Art and Craft — seen in movie theaters in 2014 and premiering Friday night on PBS’s documentary program POV — and it is as Mark Landis that he plays the role of a beneficent art donor, despite never having had any valuable art to donate.

“I decided to be a philanthropist,” is how he describes his decision to donate fake art to more than 46 museums in 20 states over the course of 30 years, mostly smaller institutions throughout the southern United States.

Having nothing of value to donate, he was naturally forced to improvise, making splendid use of the gift for copying that he had known as a lonely child and which had come to the surface during sessions of art therapy. But by the end he is hardly even trying. He passes off color xeroxes — mechanical reproductions in the guise of works of art, to rewrite Walter Benjamin — with a little paint smeared across the top, à la Thomas Kinkade. The receiving institutions remain all too credulous about the donations, failing to do their due diligence until museum registrar Matthew Leininger actually examines the supposedly 19th century work his institution has been given under UV light and finds that the substrate glows; the paper is bleached and false and modern.

This being America, the documentary ends with a solo show of Landis’ work, at which he meets the registrar who first uncovered his falsehoods. Today there is an official website selling Mark Landis originals. It is theoretically possible to spend $25,000 on a Mark Landis version of the Mona Lisa.

“Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.”
—Walter Benjamin

Art and Copy airs at 10 p.m. on KOCE
Sept. 25, 2015

The POV Season finale, airing Oct. 2, features a documentary on Ai Weiwei.

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