Courtesy photoMark Landis

‘Art and Craft’ forger is charming, fascinating

“Art and Craft” contains some focus problems, but overcomes them by generally keeping its spotlight on Mark Landis. As both one of the nation's most prolific art forgers and one of the most seemingly unlikely personalities to hold that distinction, this hermetic, compulsive, peculiar counterfeiter, who derives a sense of purpose but makes no money from his fakery, is a fascinating documentary protagonist.

A Mississippi resident in his late 50s, Landis has given away hundreds of forged artworks. The artists he's copied include Picasso, Signac, Cassatt and Charles Schulz. Using any of several personas, including a Jesuit priest called “Father Arthur Scott,” he visits museums and galleries and claims to represent a dead relative's estate. Because he doesn't benefit financially from the fakes he presents as real, he hasn't acted illegally. He considers himself a philanthropist.

Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker have gained intimate access to Landis, who looks like a cross between Dwight Eisenhower and Truman Capote and speaks in tones suggesting the latter. He demonstrates his means of forgery, rudimentary methods that involve a photocopy of an original artwork, hobby-store paint, inexpensive frames (banged up for an antique effect) and instant coffee (for stains). Influences include TV series such as “Father Brown” (the inspiration for “Father Scott”) and “The Saint.”

Personal hardships, too, are addressed. Landis lost his father while in his teens and spent time in psychiatric facilities. He has been diagnosed with mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. He lives alone in the home of his now-dead mother and remains obsessed with her. He studied photography but found nothing he wanted to photograph. He views replicating art as his calling.

Landis' comments are interwoven with two more critical voices. Matthew Leininger, a former museum registrar, details his consuming, successful quest to expose Landis as a forger. Aaron Cowan, a gallery director, addresses ethical issues with Landis in a phone interview, in preparation for a fraud-themed exhibit of Landis' work.

Some of these elements fare weakly.

The scenes featuring Leininger, who is presented as Landis' nemesis in a cat-and-mouse scenario, go nowhere insightful or suspenseful.

The filmmakers also miss the opportunity to explore why art institutions haven't adequately examined Landis' “gifts” for authenticity. Are museums so eager to expand their collections with pieces by prestigious artists that they'd rather not know too much?

But when the film focuses on Landis, and that's indeed often, it is a captivating character portrait, an amusing dark comedy, a touching real-life social drama and an entertaining 101 class in art forgery.

Landis isn't a Banksy, whose controversial projects have a political purpose. Nor is he on the same planet as the high-living forgers featured in Orson Welles' “F for Fake.” Closer to an eccentric subject in an early Errol Morris film, he is at once a consummate fraudster, an oddball exuding misspent talent, and a personification of marginalized humanity striving to feel meaningful and valid.

Despite having been outed by Leininger and the media, Landis still can't seem to stop playing art philanthropist. At closure time, we see him in action. It's hard not to like this guy.

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