Friday, 18 April 2014

ART AND CRAFT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2014 - Philanthropic Art Forgeries yield a HOT DOCS MUST-SEE

Is this Willy Loman?
Nope. It's art philanthropist Mark Landis.
In the parlance of The Blues Brothers,
he's "on a mission from God." 

Art and Craft (2014) ****
Dir. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman
Co-Dir/Editor: Mark Becker

Review By Greg Klymkiw

For thirty years, Mark Landis travelled the highways and byways of the United States of America in his big, old red cadillac, donating priceless works of art to innumerable prestigious galleries. In return, he asked for nothing. He wanted neither recognition nor money. Hell, he didn't even want tax breaks. All Landis wanted was to give. And damn, he gave! He gave, in the Red Cross parlance, ever-so generously. Curators, administrators and various art mavens were happy to accept his donations and mount the works of art in their galleries. Everything from Picasso to Matisse to Charles Courtney Curran graced their walls. The list, it seems, goes on and on.

And on. And on. And on. But here's the rub.

The Good Father prepares...

Mark Landis never donated the work as Mark Landis. He used a variety of aliases, replete with elaborate backstories and costumes. His most dynamic pseudonym was that of a solemn, black-robed Father Arthur Scott (replete with a pin of the Jesuit Order).

And if it's a rub, you're looking for, here's the MEGA-rub: Every single work of art he donated was a forgery of the highest order.

And if that's not rub-a-dub-dub-rub-enough for you, Mark Landis was the forger.

So, here's the question:

If you forge great works of art to the point where even the experts are bamboozled and you donate the works pseudonymously with no financial remuneration or even credit, does this make you a criminal? Or better yet, are you any less an artist because of it? Well, let's just say the movie doesn't go out of its way to answer these queries directly, but I suspect most viewers will have no problem drawing their own conclusions.

American Impressionist makes for fine forgery.
Art and Craft is the stuff movies (and by extension, dreams) are made of. Filmmakers Cullman, Grausman and Becker have fashioned a thoroughly engaging portrait of an artist as an old man, but not just any garden variety artist. Landis is a sweet, committed, meticulous and gentle craftsman of the highest order. In fact, he's no mere copy cat, he is an artist - reproducing with astonishing detail work that touches and moves, not only himself, but millions. Furthermore, he might well be the ultimate performance artist insofar as his entire life seems like a veritable work of art and certainly, his "cons" in costume are also art of the highest order.

Like any great story, though, there is always an antagonist and much of the film details the cat and mouse game between Landis and Matthew Leininger, a former Cincinnati art registrar who caught on to the wily, old forger. He became so obsessed with tracking him down and exposing the fraud that he eventually lost his job and continued his dogged detective work as a stay-at-home Dad. This was, for me, one of the more interesting elements of the tale - not just for its dramatic conflict, but because it presents a portrait of the two sides of that coin known as the art world.

Landis always comes across as a genuinely brilliant and creative force. Leininger, on the other hand, seems typical of the administrative side of the art world: a petty stickler who plays strictly by the rules and in so doing, displays the kind of frustrating, unimaginative Kafkaesque paper pushing that makes the art world a much lesser place than it could be. That said, Leininger scores a few points for being such a persnickety schlub that his compulsion comes close to destroying his own career via this dogged pursuit.

Landis, of course, is nothing less than a delight - a kind of Willy Loman of art forgery and philanthropy. Wisely, the film fleshes out his life and provides ample information about his strange, lonely childhood, his complicated but loving relationships with his parents and his struggles with mental illness. No fascinating stone is left unturned in the film and the whole experience is never less than enthralling.

Art and Craft proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction, but that a good story is never enough to make a good film, but that it must be a story well told. The filmmakers acquit themselves to this pursuit more than admirably. The movie is as compelling as it is inspiring and happily, it offers some genuine surprises along the way which go straight for the heart and deliver moments as deeply moving as a lot of the art that clearly touches the soul of its protagonist, artist Mark Landis.

Art and Craft is playing at Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. For ticket info, visit the festival website HERE.