Phillip Zaiser

Galerie Michael Neff

Catch an artist stepping out of the comfort zone of his established, even feted practice, while leaning into nascent work, and the impending split into distinct parts follows the course of cellular division. Biologists call it “binary fission,” and judging from Phillip Zaiser’s new exhibition, it’s what he’s experiencing. Since 1997, Zaiser has been staging droll mise-en-scènes such as a rocker’s trashed hotel suite or the smoking room in a private club—all mockery and pastiche, with artifice as its heart. His latest exhibition, “Expedition,” though also the visible manifestation of an elaborate fiction, this time a make-believe safari, also suggests that Zaiser is on an excursion along his own artistic frontier.

Without apparent rhyme or reason, twelve life-size beasts populate Zaiser’s menagerie, among them a flamingo, a panther, a polar bear, a crocodile, and a kangaroo keeping one another company. Composed of wood scraps deftly assembled into coarse figures, they were zestily if loosely painted but with enough verisimilitude to fuse these bits of wood into staunch animals when seen from a distance. Given Zaiser’s unpretentious technique and subject, it is difficult not to think of folk artist Edward Hicks’s illustrations of Isaiah 11:6–9, the vision of a “Peaceable Kingdom” where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. Likewise, in Zaiser’s kingdom predator and prey have found peace by striking poses for one another. Without being the least bit sentimental, Zaiser turns innocence into a virtue as he splits off from all the irony and biting wit of his celebrated earlier work.

Zaiser has names for his pets; as the titles of the sculptures indicate, the magpie is Piep, the rabbit Hoppy, and the crocodile Gaty (all works 2005). With sufficient imagination of your own, you would suspect that Zaiser has more imagination than to name his kangaroo Scotty. Of course, he is quoting again: The names and indeed the poses of Zaiser’s animals come from Steiff, the renowned German manufacturer of stuffed toys sporting tiny brass buttons in their ears. And if the Steiff factories used to manufacture ammunition during the Second World War, it’s also true that the company’s founder, Margarete Steiff, was a polio victim, wheelchair-bound for life, who’d learned to sew and gave away her homemade stuffed elephants to children. Taking hold of a legacy as selfless as Steiff’s, Zaiser dusts his new art with a pouf of charity even lighter than a pâté à choux.

It’s not easy to find instances of humility or sincerity in art these days, and the guilt-free aura around “Expedition” only intensifies when you are standing among the animals, and never more so than when children peer through the windows, finally recognizing something friendly in the neighborhood art gallery. From certain perspectives, Zaiser’s work will appear to sit just beyond the boundaries of serious art. The animals’ homespun style lifts them out of Jeff Koons’s center of gravity (which may rightly be cast as sincere), placing Zaiser’s work closer to folk art and craft, a style free from the highbrow flirting with lowbrow forms that make Mike Kelley’s “hobby” projects paradoxical. Perhaps Zaiser’s animals belong elsewhere than in a gallery, like the Rotoreliefs Marcel Duchamp exhibited at Concours Lépine, the Paris inventors’ fair, in search of a new audience. Admittedly, its blamelessness possesses such a poor signal-to-noise ratio that Zaiser’s exhibition could go missing on the landscape of contemporary art. What does it mean to be so counterintuitive? Your answer will depend on how much risk you can stomach coming to terms with such unexpected art.

Ronald Jones