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Is This the Real Thing?

By Steven Rosen · April 3rd, 2012 · The Big Picture
The opening reception of a most unusual exhibit for a major arts institution will take place 5-7 p.m. Thursday evening. It’s FAUX REAL: A Forger’s Story, at the gallery of University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. 

That esteemed DAAP is devoting a show to an art forger — one whose work has slipped undetected into the collections of museums — is noteworthy enough. But what’s really striking is that the subject — Mark Landis of Mississippi, who has a lifelong interest in art — is cooperating. He has provided some 60 of the 90 paintings and drawings on display, as well as various artifacts. He’s even hoping to come visit while the show is up through May 20. 

As pieced together by the show, Landis — using his own name and aliases, including that of a priest — has gifted at least 100 works (sometimes multiples of the same piece) to 50 American collecting institutions over 30 years.

About 10 museums that accepted Landis’ gifts also are participating in this show — though not all want their names used. But others have declined. It’s all pretty weird, especially as you walk through and see works allegedly signed by or originally attributed to such important artists as Picasso, Paul Signac, Gabriel Orozco and Marie Laurencin, a contemporary of Picasso and Georges Braque. Yet in the same gallery, and by the same actual artist, are renderings of the Cat in the Hat and Pebbles and Dino from The Flintstones.

The show has a reason for being here. Matthew Leininger, who organized it with DAAP Galleries Curator Aaron Cowan, discovered Landis’ trail in 2008 when he was registrar at Oklahoma City Museum of Art. But though he shared his information with other museums, it (and his role) didn’t become public until The Art Newspaper — and subsequently other publications, including The New York Times — wrote about it in 2010.

By then, he was chief registrar at Cincinnati Art Museum (a position he has since left). 

“I gave him a call to see if he was willing to come lecture, and also if any exhibitions were in the works,” Cowan said. “I said it was a really interesting story and brings up a lot of issues in regards to museums and art collectors and also in regards to intellectual property and plagiarizing someone’s work.” Leininger compiled a list of institutions from whom to seek loans. “I took the information from there and considered what other kinds of materials to have — I wanted to make it a broader discussion about the issues museums face,” Cowan said. 

That may be the intent, but the gallery window facing the school’s hallways — the marquee promotional spot — has a big photo of Landis. Could this show be seen as an honor? “To me, it’s besides the point. You have to put a face with a discussion,” Cowan replied. 

Landis seems to have wanted to honor his parents through the gifting, the curators say. And they’re unsure if he’s entirely given the practice up — though Cowan, who has been in contact with him via phone and email, has asked him to cease. 

Leininger recalled how he was researching Landis’ six gifts to the Oklahoma City museum in advance of formal accessioning, and found that one watercolor attributed to Signac had already been given to Savannah College of Art and Design. A second oil painting had previously been donated to St. Louis University. Putting a third gift, of a supposed 17th century red-chalk drawing, under black light for inspection, Leininger found numerous discrepancies. 

“I sent an email to the registrar listserv at American Association of Museums,” he recalled. “And within the first hour, between phone calls and emails, I had 20 institutions contact me that they had something from Mark Landis.” 

From there, he started to put together the story. 

And how does the show’s subject feel about all the attention? Reached via email at an address Cowan provided, Landis responded to a question about his involvement with this show: “I sent things because I was ashamed of all the bad/careless things I assumed they probably had and wanted to send some good things as I have improved greatly in the past 20+ years and of course they asked me to.” He also wrote he doesn’t take the show’s title as a negative. “It’s different if there’s no attempt to defraud. I used to paint copies of valuable pictures for Mother to put on her walls to impress her friends.” 

He doubts he will be able to continue his gifting activities any longer, however.

Visit www.daap.uc.edu/galleries for show information.



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