Walter Oltmann - Standard Bank Young Artist 2001 at Durban Art Gallery
by Virginia MacKenny
Walter Oltmann's work both delights and unsettles. His painstaking, woven wire pieces depict flowers, reptiles or insects often juxtaposed with some human element. Monumentalising an "intersection" between nature and humankind, these works fascinate because of their glittering, flickering, metallic and patterned surfaces yet disturb because of the nature of the transformation they imply.
Many of the pieces, like Sleeping Serpent, a snake, in brass wire, curled over itself, evoke artefacts from some ancient world like that of the Aztecs or the Egyptians where creatures were seen to commune with the dead or were demi-gods in their own right and hence were often celebrated in bejewelled forms. It is the latent power of such subjects that begins to rise in Oltmann's work.
Mantis appears to be a fairly straightforward depiction of a praying mantis sitting in the palm of a glove. The glove, however, is reminiscent of those embroidered gloves or ceremonial gauntlets worn by gentlemen in the 17th century - its juxtaposition with the mantis brings "Europe" up against an insect quintessentially associated with Africa. Both this work and the two flower pieces on show share a concern with the "claiming" of things. Centrepiece depicts "passion" flowers in a tall phallic vase. It is nature reduced to a trophy, cut and dislocated from its source. It engages the idea of "power over" in a subtle way. Disarticulated Flower does the same - its separated petals and stamens pinned like a giant trophy to the wall, it represents the history of western knowledge which dissects and analyses in order to own. Western science - the voice of objective neutrality - masks a gendered, white, masculine power and it is this language that Oltmann so intriguingly engages.
Colonisation with its attendant process of disempowerment is here turned in on itself as the coloniser becomes colonised and is under threat of losing his very humanity. This is first hinted at in Larva Suit. Here the suit itself speaks of insect or insect-to-be. It appears, armour-like, to protect the wearer from the dangers of the outside world, but it also threatens to transform the wearer giving birth to some unknown creature.
What this creature might be is presented in Mask. Standing over two metres tall, a huge, metallic human face becomes the body of an insect with antennae protruding from the forehead and six legs from the sides of the face. Kafkaesque in its implications of the individual being encroached upon, it is an intensely disquieting image. Humankind identifies far more strongly with the mammal kingdom, preferring to anthropomorphise anything that looks like it could even vaguely carry human characteristics. Snakes and insects, however, do not seem to feel - blank and impassive to eyes that search for some kind of emotive responsive, they remain inscrutable and we shy away from such coolness. So when the human form is taken over by such references it carries a sense of horror. The very fact that this particular head shows no sign of response to its transformation implies that the takeover is nearing completion.
Another work that implies this completion is Net Suit. While life-size, it is the most insubstantial piece on the show. Woven from thin brass wire in an open pattern it is a deflated kindred of the Michelin man. Distorted, flattened, ill-defined, it hangs like the discarded skin of a reptile. Transparent, boneless, with no facial features, it is sexless and toeless; a ghost of a human presence hanging in a flimsy sac. This work and others like it allow the viewer to speculate - literally to see and be stimulated to thought by what they have seen.
Astonishingly evocative, Oltmann's work has managed to engage with issues of power that are gendered, racial and personal without ever seeming didactic or prescriptive. Supported by an excellent and affordable little catalogue written by Brenda Schmahmann, this is a show not to be missed.
Until January 2 2002
Durban Art Gallery, 2nd floor, City Hall, Smith Street
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