A documentary is often only as good as its subject, and Art and Craft has a truly unique and astonishing one. Mark Landis is a balding, soft-spoken middle-aged man who lives in a messy Laurel, Mississippi apartment where he drinks wine, smokes cigarettes, watches old movies on TV, and makes forgeries of artwork that he then donates to Southern museums free of charge, convincing the institutions to take them via wholly phony stories and by using various made-up aliases. The most brazen of Landis’s personas is that of a priest, which goes hand in hand with the religious works he reproduces, and his copies are so good that he spent decades giving them away—and having them hung in galleries—without being detected. His pastime was eventually discovered by University of Cincinnati curator named Matthew Leininger, whose due diligence tipped him off to Landis’s ruse and drove him to notify the victims of his crime. Except, that is, that what Landis does isn’t actually illegal, since—loophole!—he doesn’t receive any money for his philanthropic gifts.
Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker profile the prolific Landis with a non-judgmental straightforwardness that allows the sheer brazenness of his scams to generate both shock and amusement, especially given Landis’s own on-camera discussions about his work. With slumped shoulders and a meek voice, Landis seems more than a bit “off,” and it’s no surprise to learn that, as a teenager, he spent a year in a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown following his father’s death, or that he was diagnosed with, among other things, schizophrenia. His regular, affectionate talk about “Mother,” whose wedding album he pores over, and whose picture sits in his home, makes him come across as a more mild, harmless Norman Bates. Art and Craft, though, makes no case for either his inherent goodness or insanity, so much as it allows his story to unfold as one about obsession—both with regard to Landis’s own pathological work as a forger and Leininger’s own, equally dogged pursuit of the man, which cost him his career.
Often done by tracing, or with colored pencils, or simply by marking up photocopies with paint and then sticking them in Walmart frames that have been stained with coffee, Landis’s compositions eventually turn him into a mini-celebrity, as well as nab him a gallery exhibition in Cincinnati, and thus the question of whether Landis is himself an artist in his own right hovers over Art and Craft. Shrewdly, however, the directors refuse to articulate their own opinions of, or outrage over, Landis, instead presenting him as an exceptionally curious personality engaged in a form of duplicative manufacturing born from a combination of childhood distress, adolescent psychological trauma, and inexplicable mania. It’s a portrait of, if not a painter of any real renown, a devious and generous charlatan of the highest order.