Faux Real Exhibition Review

April 14th, 2012  |  Published in April 2012, On View

Photo by Michael Everett

Admittedly, authenticity is a word I know well.  As a specialist at a local auction house, I am often asked to verify a work of art.  Usually, I consult a variety of resources and other experts who help to conclusively argue for or against the veracity of an object.  The most difficult items often get sent away to a consultant or academic for final verification.  Even still, not all rabbit trails end with irrefutable results.

But are authenticity and market value really the only quantifiable values worth giving to a work?  This question, I think, is central to the exhibition Faux Real:  A Forger’s Story at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.  The content and central premise of the show, which raises questions about value and reality, was indeed what first attracted me to it.  This exhibition recounts the story of a master forger, Mark Landis, who duped not just a handful of experts, but nearly fifty institutions into accepting his counterfeit copies.  Because Landis never sold or received monetary gain for any of the items, charges were never pressed.  His work runs the gamut from illustrations of 1920s ladies fashion and portraits by Picasso to cartoon drawings of Dr. Seuss characters and even conté crayon Old Master copies.  Although counterfeit copies, each is meticulously done in a beautiful way that retains an attention to detail and craft.

That attention to detail immediately caught my eye when I entered the space.  After wandering briefly around the gallery, I quickly realized that there seemed to be a very deliberate beginning and end to the exhibition, which allowed the narrative to unfold chronologically and thematically.   A small alcove to the immediate left is devoted to the biographies of Matthew C. Leininger, the registrar who uncovered the story, and the infamous Landis.  The main perimeter of the room features works by Landis, all copies of other artists’ works, which he passed off as his own.  A handful of these works sit next to strategically placed items, such as a Christie’s auction catalogue or a Sotheby’s invoice, which allude to their alleged authenticity.  A center wall displays other notable art counterfeiters, such as Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) and Eric Hebborn (1934-1996).  Towards the back right corner, a grid of snapshots depicts Landis in various poses.  The majority of the right half of the gallery is devoted to displaying and explaining the scientific strategies experts use to authenticate works of art.  A final wall highlights a recent prank done by Landis, commissioned by Maxim magazine.

Once I discovered this defined layout, I began to detect an underlying but pervasive educational or even redemptive tone.  The authentic, that which is real, genuine, and of undisputed origin — and absent from the show — is clearly given creditability over the forgeries presented.  This pointed reading locates forgery within a negative light. Rather than sparking a dialogue about the implications of the gifts, Landis’ actions, or the reality of authenticity, the subsidiary evidence and heavy use of didactic text present the facts to the viewer in a way that allows for limited interpretation.  Ultimately, it seems as if the exhibition is meant to inform and save the public from falling into similar traps.

This blunt message is problematic and restrictive, which asks the viewer to consider other avenues for understanding the intriguing content presented within the exhibition.  For example, one might consider Landis within the artist-trickster paradigm, a situation that places emphasis on the performance over the final product.   In fact, the exhibition touches on this notion of performance by including such artifacts as Father Arthur Scott’s — a recurrently used alias — coat and clerical collar as well as photographs of Landis dressed in disguise.  Unfortunately, as presented, the placement of the items serves as merely visual documentation.  However, I think this performative element is the most successful part of the exhibition, because it begins to delve deeper into motivation, the role of the art object within the narrative, and the boundaries between acting and reality.

Of the work itself, I am most intrigued by how each gift alters and indeed even questions and disrupts the value of a museum’s collection. Think of the — now well-known — Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., which somewhat openly displays objects of questionable provenance.  By appropriating the language of the institution, the viewer at first glance believes in the legitimacy of the objects on view there.  However, the success is in its subversion of information – think of that second glance or moment of realization between truth and fiction.  But the museum retains this success because it never fully reveals its secrets.  There is never an a-ha moment, but instead that nagging sense of uncertainty.

Photo by Michael Everett

When I first heard about the Faux Real exhibition, I expected to see that type of slippage between real and supposedly real.  Especially given that Landis himself was rumored to appear at the opening.  In some uncanny but visceral way, I almost wanted to be duped or at least confused on some level.  Which brings me back to my original question about the relationship between authenticity and worth, even the notion of legitimacy itself.  Authenticity is a disposable term in a culture that verbally values genuineness and trust but in reality discards truth and sincerity.  We must reexamine the reality of authenticity to discover whether it is a valuable notion worth saving or instead something that must be redefined.

–Amanda Dalla Villa Adams

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