Walter Oltmann - Standard Bank Young Artist 2001 at the National Gallery
by Sue Williamson
Who remembers the moment in The Fly (1986) when to his extreme alarm, odd and scary protuberances start to break through actor Jeff Goldblum's body, and he begins to be transformed into a giant insect? Standing in front of Walter Oltmann's Mask, a two metre high mask of blank repose from the sides of which the legs of an insect emerge, I had a flashback to that scene. With a little smoothing over and rearrangement, the features of the mask might metamorphose into the back carapace of one of the giant cockroaches Oltmann has made in the past.
This link between the insect and the human world has been a theme which Oltmann has developed to extreme advantage. Playing on our aversion to things that scuttle in dark corners, Oltmann renders the objects of our dislike in silvery aluminium or brass wire and, making them enormous, hangs them on the wall. Here, the intricacies of their construction as interpreted by the artist can be admired and marveled at rather than trodden upon.
The link is drawn upon further in two pieces on Oltmann's current show at the South African National Gallery, part of his Standard Bank Young Artist of 2001 tour - Larva Suit and Net. Oltmann's chosen medium is wire, and I cannot recall an artist who has worked with it more fluidly or obsessively. Coiling, bending, weaving and binding, using different metals for textural diversity, Oltmann is a master of his technique. Larva Suit is a metal suit of armour, made of hundreds of interwoven square plates, each of which rises to a shallow cone. Sprouts of wire surround the face. Formidable and remarkable.
Yet a larva is a casing inside which an insect develops, and the piece which hangs next to it, Net Suit, suggests what might happen to the larva suit once its occupant breaks free. In stark contrast to the heaviness and impenetrability of Larva Suit, Net is woven in loose openwork from the finest wire, soft, slack, one foot slightly bent. Wrought in silvery wire, hardly discernible rosettes in a contrasting wire animate the gentle surface. The two pieces might be read as a metaphor for liberation - the hard, encasing armour, followed by the lightness of Net Suit.
Next to this stands Centrepiece, an outsize vase of flowers ... and here it must be said that on occasion, perhaps when the theme is more banal, Oltmann's technique seems to weigh down his subject matter. Much more interesting is the Disarticulated Flower on the opposite wall, in which the separate elements of a flower have been rendered large, like a sculptural botanical drawing. Definitely, this is a show to be seen. For more on Oltmann, read Kathryn Smith's Artbio, and Virginia MacKenny's review of this show when it appeared at the Durban Art Gallery.
Until April 14
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