In the collective imagination, the archetypal art forger is a cynical, sociopathic male with superhuman intelligence and manipulative powers. Working nights in a hidden basement, his associates are shadowy figures in a treacherous underworld. The images he produces contain an aura of mystery – the mystery of authenticity, a question most people lack the intuition and ability to judge. Art forgers are both loved – like countless novels and films about them – and despised for their antisocial tendencies.
Virginia-born Mark Landis, the subject of the 2014 documentary Arts and crafts and a prolific forger whose works bearing the names of artists as diverse as René Magritte, José Clemente Orozco, and Egon Schiele have unwittingly found their way into the collections of 46 museums in 20 states might come across as such a fraud. But he’s not. He does not speak with the certainty of an art historian, and he does not arouse suspicion in the company of others. And what is perhaps most remarkable for a counterfeiter is that he has never committed a crime and has given away all his counterfeits without thought of commercial gain. His presence is endearing, inviting a nurturing and protective response from those around him—even if they are curators and investigators of art fraud whose professions should otherwise automatically imply an antagonistic relationship with him.
One of his most ardent supporters is Sabrina Wirth, who organized Landis’ first exhibition in New York City, creative conscience, currently on view at her gallery at 80 West 40th Street in Manhattan through the end of April. As a curator with a long interest in questions of appropriation and appraisal of art, Wirth was so intrigued when he finished Arts and crafts that she hired the film’s co-director Jennifer Grausman and Colette Loll, who starred in the documentary and founded the consulting firm Art Fraud Insights, to take part in a show.
“I’m very interested in seeing how perceptions of value change when you see artworks in a different context or learn about them from a different angle,” Wirth told Hyperallergic.
The exhibition marks a new era in Landis’ artistic career (although Landis avoids calling himself an artist). For around two decades from the late 1980s, as a priest from a wealthy home, he traveled to various museums to bequeath artworks from the family collection, inventing forged provenances and handing over paintings that often barely stood up to even the most cursory scrutiny. Wirth says that Landis often used old black-and-white catalogs to make his copies, so he invented colors that could be very different from those used in the original artwork.
“Back then, the internet was still in its infancy, so nobody could just google an artwork and see if it really was the original or not,” says Wirth. His copies of Charles Courtney Curran’s “Three Women” (1894) and René Magritte’s drawing “La vocation” (1964) demonstrate Landis’ ability to imitate diverse themes and styles.
While Landis’s success in making prolific donations at the time rested on his own anonymity as an artist, his show at the Wirth Gallery marks nearly a decade since Alec Wilkinson’s publication New Yorker Article “The Giveaway,” which first chronicled Landis’s practice of charitable counterfeiting in 2013, sparking a near-sensational interest in the man and his work.
While most of the paintings that are part of creative conscience Never donated to museums, they resemble some of the work he has done to dupe institutions – including such prominent ones as the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and more . Among the paintings are letters of appreciation sent to Landis by museum curators and directors.
Wirth poses, “One wonders: What does this say about the institutions that have embraced these artworks on a whim?” She also included a drawing Landis made when she was 12, which she described as “masterful” and ” called unbelievable.
As important as Landis’s artistry seems to be the telling of his devotion to giving away his fakes philanthropicly — something he says he did because it made his mother proud and because “it made my low self-esteem come true.” gave a big boost,” he said to hyperallergic people – and the reaction that his peculiar, childlike charisma triggered. Since Arts and crafts Released in 2014, Wirth says Landis has “made a ton of new friends” and landed a slew of commissions, including from actress Rosanna Arquette.
“I just sat on the edge of my bed staring at my TV and I was like, what do I do now? I can’t just watch TV for the rest of my life. I was feeling pretty bad and my mom was gone,” Landis says of his life before that Arts and crafts.
“And then along came these fashionable young documentarians from New York,” he continued, and his life has never been the same since.
Both Wirth and Loll speak protectively of Landis. “I think he just needs the right people around him and the right guidance,” Wirth said. And Loll, who before meeting Landis as “an expert on heritage protection, was outraged by all of this,” was quickly “disarmed” after speaking with him and came to revise her prejudices about him. She vigorously defends him from “negative feedback he gets from people who really don’t understand who he is and where he’s from.”
“There’s a group of us that you know — me and the filmmakers — that have formed a kind of community around him,” Loll told Hyperallergic. She also created the Landis website.
“To this day he gets so much fan mail from people saying, ‘I’m an artist, I have mental health issues [issues]’You inspire me,'” Coll said. (Landis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) “You can’t believe how many people he’s touched through this film — not just people who are socially isolated, but also people who have mental health issues of their own.” Ironically, he is with a fan base of sorts, has become a true philanthropist who has raised tens of thousands of dollars through art sales.
Wirth says while Landis is best known as a forger, she hopes people will start to see him as an artist, to.
“What I’m trying to do is give him a little bit of legitimacy as an artist,” she said. “Because he has the talent and passion to create art.”