Wire is Walter Oltmann’s main medium for making sculptural works and he manipulates it in a way that emphasises hand-made process, using the linear quality of wire to create forms and surfaces through techniques that parallel handcrafts. His new works – created for his solo exhibition Penumbra at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg – explore interconnections between drawing and sculpture and consist mainly of wire wall hangings that resemble overblown lace or crochet work.
Using mostly a thin (1mm diameter) aluminium wire, these net-like works are made by layering and stitching together sections of weave to create a form of three-dimensional tonal drawing. The resulting wall hangings declare their presence through scale and surface texture but often look delicate and at times even insubstantial. “I have made connections to domestic textile practices in previous artworks and continue to explore such forms of making in these works in evoking fragility and the passage of time,” explains Oltmann. “My work thus carries a very definite textile sensibility and I am interested in making connections between decorative ornament and subject matter that seems somewhat contradictory or disturbing in relation to such handcrafted embellishment.”
The works forming part of Penumbra explore archeological images (skulls and skeletons) that Oltmann frequently draws on, engaging with the notion of deep time, such as geological time, change and evolution. Oltmann also more specifically returns to the theme of “mother and child”. His pairing of an adult skull with that of a child’s counters the expected sentiment and underscores the tragic loss of the tender bond between mother and child. What is usually presented as a nurturing and serene scene becomes a disturbing testament to catastrophe. He furthermore explores the image of the sleeping child, another common image used by artists to depict the innocence and serenity associated with sleep, but it has also frequently been used to evoke death or to suggest death as a form of sleep.
The show also presents an extension of Oltmann’s coelacanth images. “I am intrigued by the mythology surrounding the coelacanth as a ‘hybrid’ creature that has been claimed to represent an evolutionary transitional state between fish and land animal (the common title of ‘old four legs’ points to this adaptation of legs developed from fins),” says Oltmann. In other works Oltmann continues his previous exploration of the interface between human and insect, notably beetles and moths. The empty suits and armour, as stand in for the human body, often reference exoskeletal forms of insects and suggest processes of transformation (malting via metamorphosis).
Finally, in the namesake work of the show, Penumbra, Oltmann presents an interpretation of a photographic image of a rocky landscape. It is in fact taken from a documentation of a rock-engraving site. “I wanted to interpret a scene that would carry a sense of deep time and distance – a forlorn place that looks untouched and uninhabitable,” explains Oltmann. “The circular format may recall the view through a telescope, further underlining the notion of distance.”
Born in 1960 in Rustenburg, Gauteng, South Africa, Walter Oltmann’s main area of focus is sculpture, and more particularly in fabricating woven wire forms, which sometimes reference local craft traditions. He has researched and written on the use of wire in African material culture in this region and is deeply interested in the influence of these traditions in contemporary South African art. He has had numerous solo exhibitions with the Goodman Gallery, and has created several large-scale commissions for venues such as the Zeitz Sculpture Garden in Segera, Kenya.