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Archive: Issue No. 47, July 2001

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Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Sleeping Serpent, 2001
Brass wire
90 x 130 x 20 cm

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Moth Drawing, 2001
Pastel on paper
102 x 152 cm
Photo: Cliff Shain

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Centrepiece, 2001
Aluminium, copper and brass wire
220 x 160 x 160 cm
Photo: Bob Cnoops

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Silverfish, 1998
Aluminium wire

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Cockroach, 1998
Copper wire and tubing
140 x 90 x 17cm

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Gencor Commission, 1994/95
Mixed media
840 x 430cm

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
Mediator, 1994
Copper wire and tubing, plastic mirrors
203 x 98 x 28 cm

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann
An African Group (detail), 1985
Galvanised wire
181 x 327 x 45cm

Walter Oltmann

Walter Oltmann

A feature on an artist in the public eye

Walter Oltmann
by Kathryn Smith

Modus operandi:

For Walter Oltmann, recipient of the 2001 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, the world of creatures (largely insects), African material culture usually associated with craft and objects of decorative domesticity provide an unending source of fascination. Working in wire and other industrial metal products, he is something of a virtuoso when it comes to working with lo-tech, inexpensive materials and performing artistic alchemy. Like other Natal artists of his generation (Andries Botha, Peter Schütz and some early works by Jeremy Wafer), his ethos owes much to the art and craft history of the province. His initial objects of reference are translated into often monstrous versions of the originals - monstrous in terms of scale, but ultimately unquestionably aesthetic. The labour-intensiveness of his working process provokes admiration and wonder leading viewers to examine the known world in another light. The process of making preoccupies him, as it has done for 20 years.

He admits he is seduced by the tensions inherent in what he makes, throwing what is often regarded as "women's work" into unknown territories. He has been known to "knit" wire, or create beadwork effects from bits of cut tubing. His intricate "lacework" patterns may be, on closer inspection, based on guns for example.

But it's not all about form. Oltmann acknowledges, in his interrogation of scale, issues of abjection and associated feelings of phobia. He references the biblical and has been researching colonial study drawings of the flora and fauna of South Africa, as well as the etchings of Albrecht Dürer, finding ways of conflating these these illustrative, linear depictions with his wirecraft strategies.

This tension between media, labour and imagery results in a new kind of "mondo exotica" that allows Oltmann to transgress the oft-debated no man's land between art and craft.

Artist's statement:

"I manipulate industrial materials in a way that contradicts their prefabricated nature by emphasising hand-made processes. Hence I use the linear qualities of these materials to create various forms and surfaces through techniques that parallel handcrafts. I have become deeply interested in the interchange between different cultures in southern Africa, and my sculptures and drawings often reflect and acknowledge the crafts of Africa.

"For variety, I like to work on a number of things concurrently, switching between sculpting and drawing. This prevents it all becoming too much and keeps the images going. I enjoy a hands-on approach to sculpture and most of my work involves processes that allow forms to grow and evolve slowly into meditative statement. In more recent works I have explored objects and insects which occupy our domestic spheres. By referring to such everyday objects and insects I have tried to create a framework for the viewer which is familiar and thereby creates freedom for association. These everyday objects and creatures have a direct link to activities, movements and acts which occur in a realm in which family relations and personal identity are expressed. I hope that I can articulate tensions or ambivalences between private and public, past and present, in these objects. The medium and the image spark off something. It's a fusion of the two."


Oltmann's latest body of work, assembled for the Standard Bank National Arts Festival, has developed from his gigantic Silverfish that adorns a wall in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, but is now more elaborate and even decorative, with intricate detail sewn onto the woven forms.

Keeping with the insect symbolism, he describes how he is exploring the delicacy of moths. He is "trying out new things and methods": embossing paper and experimenting with burnt charcoal, testing its tactile powderiness.

Oltmann has also taken to creating what he calls "larva suits" - anthropomorphic insects or, rather, humanoid protective exoskeletons he traces back to illustrations to regalia worn by conquistadors and early explorers during the time of the voyages of discovery. As he comments, "the linear depiction of weaving also stems from an illustration of a European carved in ivory by a North African artist. It suggested the way I should make these."

Completing the collection of drawings and sculptures for his award exhibition, which include some older works, are Sleeping Serpent in brass wire and Centrepiece, an enormous, kitschly beautiful floral arrangement in a vase.

Before that:

Fast making a name for himself as the desirable artist to grace the walls and atria of major corporate giants, Oltmann has undertaken a number of corporate commissions. His work can be seen in the Billiton Collection, the International Convention Centre in Durban, MTN and the Sandton Convention Centre. He succeeds for one simple reason: these huge spaces find a counterpoint in Oltmann's work that is about acknowledging the need for objects that are at once commanding, aesthetic and compelling, and making hand-worked processes look industrial.

Johannesburg gallery audiences got a sneak preview of some of his work to be exhibited in Grahamstown on the formidable Wits staff exhibition that took place recently at the Standard Bank Gallery.

And before that:

Recognised as one of our most important contemporary artists, Oltmann exhibited on the Cape Town Triennial exhibition and regularly in the Volkskas Atelier. He has been the recipient of several awards, one of which was the Standard Bank National Drawing Prize in 1990. Past exhibition highlights include the critically acclaimed Earth and Everything: Recent Art from South Africa, held at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the travelling exhibition 'Nearer Than Bronze', also known as 'The Paper Show', featuring sculptures in paper, curated by Peter Schütz.

Next up:

After tracking the progress of his Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition, Oltmann will be showing new work at the Goodman Gallery exhibition alongside Peter Schütz in September/October. These two artists often show together and for those who remember their 'Icons and Idols' exhibition of 1997, this should be a treat. Oltmann is also hoping to do some print-making, extending his research into 19th century fauna and flora colonial engravings.

Curriculum vitae:

Walter Oltmann was born in 1960 in Rustenberg, Gauteng, South Africa. He completed his BA (Fine Arts) at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg in 1981 and following that with an MA (Fine Arts) from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1985. Presently, he is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Wits University.

2001: 'No 1 Jan Smuts Ave', Wits Fine Arts staff exhibition, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
1997: 'The Paper Show', formerly called 'Nearer Than Bronze', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1997: 'Icons and Idols', two-person exhibition with Peter Schuuml;tz, The Goodman Gallery
1997: 'Nearer Than Bronze', Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
1997: 'Holdings: Refiguring the Archive', Group exhibition, University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School
1997: 'Nearer Than Bronze', Travelling group exhibition of sculptures in paper curated by Peter Schütz, Natal Technikon Art Gallery
1995: '4 Rooms', Group exhibition, Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
1995: 'The Lost Wax Show', Group staff exhibition of small-scale bronze sculptures, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1995: 'Earth and Everything: Recent Art from South Africa', Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, UK
1995: Three Person Exhibition with Neels Coetzee and Peter Schütz. Accompanying catalogue: Three Sculptors, Three Readers, Three Authors
1995: 'Something Boxed', Group Exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1995: Johannesburg Biennale, Hungary and South African exhibitions
1993: Two Person Exhibition with Peter Schütz, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1992: 'The Paris Catalyst Exhibition', Alliance Française, Durban
1990: Standard Bank National Drawing Competition, University of the Witwatersrand, Staff Exhibition, Johannesburg
1989: Volkskas Atelier, Pretoria
1988: Volkskas Atelier, Pretoria
1986: Group Exhibition, NSA Gallery, Durban
1986: New Signatures, Durban
1985: Cape Town Triennial Exhibition
1984: Solo Exhibition, Rembrandt Gallery, Milner Park
1984: Staff Exhibition, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
1981: Durban Botanical Gardens Sculpture Exhibition

1994: Honorable mention - Sleeping Beauties: Juried Art Exhibition of Contemporary Headrests. The Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, USA
1990: Joint First Prize Winner, Standard Bank National Drawing Competition
1989: Volkskas Atelier, Merit Award

Public collections

University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
Durban Art Gallery
University of South Africa Art Gallery, Pretoria
Johannesburg Art Gallery


1997: "Decorative Wirework in African Material Culture of Southern Africa", De Arte 56. University of South Africa Press, Pretoria. pp 9- 24, September