SHEFFIELD, Ala.—Art forgery is an old crime, dating back to the renaissance and possibly back to the Roman Empire.
However, artist and forger Mark Landis isn’t a criminal, but he’s not exactly honest either.
Landis is also the subject of the film “Art and Craft,” which will be shown at the Ritz Theatre in Sheffield at 3 p.m. Sunday. It is presented by the Tennessee Valley Art Association’s Ritz Cinema Society.
“Art and Craft” director and producer Jennifer Grausman said that for the past 30 years Landis has been posing as various figures from will executors to philanthropists and priests and donating his forgeries to museums, passing them off as the real thing.
Grausman said Landis would paint or draw from auction catalogs, often recreating minor works or works from lesser known artists from various time periods. Many museums might not have had staff members on hand that were experts in those eras or paintings, allowing Landis to continue to donate his forgeries undetected.
“Certainly, Mark went to a lot of different types of institutions,” Grausman said. “There were varying degrees of when people found out. Some discovered it right when he left, or six months later. When they tried to get in touch, he may have left a fake address or a PO box that he had closed. Some people assumed he bought a fake at auction and unwittingly donated it.”
Grausman also said that donations also see less scrutiny than if they had been purchased.
Prior to “Art and Craft,” Grausman directed and produced the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Pressure Cooker.” She worked on “Art and Craft” with dirctor and producer Sam Cullman and co-director and editor Mark Becker.
Tennessee Valley Art Association assistant director Jim Berryman said Landis is certainly an eccentric character, allowing the movie to work on many different levels.
“It’s a remarkable character study of an unusual person,” Berryman said. “When you have something like that in fiction or reality, when someone is outside the curve it knocks everyone off their groove. He didn’t cheat anybody, he didn’t do it for the money. Just with bald-faced chutzpah, he was able to confuse some remarkably substantial institutions.”
He said the film also works like a caper film, but it can also raise questions about what is authenticity and the reliability of memory.
“People don’t hear and see what really happens at all,” Berryman said. “Any trial lawyer can tell you this is why you have to have lots of witnesses because what people think they see and what people remember are so different from what can be verified.”
Grausman, a former manager of exhibition and film funding at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said she first heard of Landis in a New York Times article in January of 2001. She showed it to Cullman and Becker who were interested in making a film on Landis.
After tracking him down, Grausman said they had to spend a lot of time on the phone with Landis before they visited him in his rural Mississippi home.
“I got to know him quite well that way; we sent our movies we had already made, so he knew what our work was like,” she said. “Mark was a bit of a shut in and looking for connections to tell his story.”
Landis was a naturally gifted artist as a child, Grausman said. His dad was in the Navy and stationed abroad. When he was home his father would take him to museums and when his parents were out he would entertain himself by copying pictures of museum catalogs.
She added that Landis had some training at art schools in Chicago and San Francisco but never finished.
As for why Landis did what he did, Grausman said she didn’t want to give away too much from the film and try to leave that up to the viewer.
“There are several reasons I think and everyone has their own interpretation,” Grausman said. “It’s everyone’s central question and we try not to answer it. A lot of what Mark was looking for is what we’re all looking for, connection, companionship and respect. Those are things everyone craves, but he went about getting it in an unusual way.”
Now Landis has a website called marklandisoriginals.com, which was set up by an art forgery expert who had met Landis and wanted to help him.
The film took about three years to make and it premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival before releasing to select theaters in September 2014.
Grausman added that it’s hard not to like Landis.
“He’s very funny, he’s very bright, he’s pretty charming,” she said. “The rhythm of the film, his humor inspired us in the film making. There is comedy as well as pathos, and that was all inspired by Mark.”