From Grey Gardens (1975) or Marwencol (2010) to Finding Vivian Meier (2013), America has a strong portfolio of documentaries about eccentric and often highly gifted people. The truly wonderful Art and Crafts (2014) is up there with the best.
It tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger whose fake paintings and drawings ended up in dozens of art museums across the USA. Landis tried his hand at everything, from Picasso to Russian icons, from the French artist Signac to Charles Schulz and Dr Seuss. A slight, stooped, balding figure with gentle eyes, poorly shaven cheeks and chin, and sticky-out ears, he would use one of four different aliases to approach the museums with his fakes. Yet no legal action has ever been taken against him because he never sought to make money out of his venture. In his own words “I decided to be a philanthropist” and, as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that this action was a curious posthumous offering to his idolised father and mother. At the age of 17, when his father died, he had a nervous breakdown and one of the many droll moments in the film is his humour on reading his psychological report from this period when the psychologists ticked the boxes for nearly all psychoses known to man (“Got that… Got that… Got that…”).
Aside from his painterly talents, Landis is a born actor. One of his aliases was a Jesuit priest, Father Arthur Scott. Landis clearly loves TV, and this character was inspired by the Father Brown series: “You can learn everything you need about how to be a priest from the Father Brown Kenneth Moore series,” he says. Another is that of a man from a family with old money, with an imaginary sister called Emily who lives in Paris and wants to disband her art collection, asking her sibling to take care of it for her.
The art materials used by Landis were bought at Wal-Mart and other cheap retail stores, the wooden backboards for some paintings being age-stained with instant coffee. The frames were cheap supermarket frames, aged with everyday household products. Yet despite his crass amateurism for decades he got away with it. His Nemesis was a lacklustre individual called Matt Meininger at the Cincinnati Art Museum who noticed on the Internet that almost identical works had been bought by sister museums around the country. This is really the tale of two obsessives, because Meininger launched a vendetta against Landis that became so excessive that it resulted in his own redundancy, and the end of this documentary – when the two men meet, post-revelation, when a special exhibition of Landis’s art is launched in Cincinnati – is one of the hilarious high points of this engaging, astonishing and touching tale. “Anything I can do for you, you just let me know,” says Landis, who can’t recall even having met Meininger before, even though he has. Pathetically, Meininger imagines that Landis must also be obsessed with him, though in fact he couldn’t give a damn.
With his quiet, slightly creepy voice, Landis is a non-stop talker, with a sense of irony that often goes right over the heads of the social workers and art curators who interrogate him. A few quotes to whet your appetite, or test your powers of sourcing:
“I’m worried that I’m going to be looked at as a crook and a drinker and a smoker, which is all pretty negative.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, and sometimes the stepmother of deception. That pretty much takes care of things.”
“We all like to feel useful whatever ability we happen to have.”
“People would be better off if they could be real Vulcans, and not have emotions, then you wouldn’t get so upset by things.”
“So everyone’s different, and everyone’s the same, and there are three million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them, and that’s kind of the best way I can put it.”
The best quote, which gives the documentary its title, is “I’m not really an artist. I just like to do Art and Crafts when I’m watching TV”. The odd thing is that this is true. By the end of the film, one feels sad that Landis can’t continue with his “philanthropy”, following his exposure to the press and the art world. But then comes the surprise revelation that he has found a whole new way of channelling his extraordinary talent.
Ultimately, this film is about eccentricity and the puzzled failure of the unimaginative to wrap their minds around a way of being that they cannot comprehend. Orson Welles would have loved it. So would my father, who was also an eccentric and a painter who, like Landis, lived modestly and worked in his bedroom using whatever materials came to hand.
By hook or by crook, make sure you see this documentary! Click here for the trailer.