When I was a young child beetles fascinated me. On walks in the veld I would find the live ones scurrying about their business, and the dead ones merely shells strewn across my path. They were to me, when alive, mechanical creatures, seemingly soulless automatons driven by some divine unseen motor.
Their anatomy suggested that they were but shells containing machinery, military vehicles of a sort without will, consciousness or conscience. I never saw a beetle in the agony of death, they don’t decompose as humans or warm blooded animals do, but are rather emptied of their internality, decaying invisibly from the inside, becoming tiny sculptural forms. There is something of this fascination with the mortality and life of the insect that manifests itself in Walter Oltmann’s exhibition.The artist uses the insect form, specifically the scarab beetle, to explore a number of issues. First, Oltmann’s own artistic processes evident in the exhibition, seem insect-like. Forms gestate in the ink and bleach drawings, In Amber, while the large-scale sculptures of suits, armour and chrysalis’s are built up with the mechanical and programmatic determination of an insect builder. Iconographically, Oltmann has engaged intensely with various beetles through his studies of their external textures and patterns. On a more obscure level, there is a resonant connection between the hermeticism and humility of the craftsperson that tinges Oltmann’s work, and the beetle as an industrious but insignificant creature. More to the point, this body of work plainly explores the conceptual affinity between the human form, as a natural (skin, nervous system) as well as socialised object (armour, suits, clothing) and the life and form of the insect, by hybridising the insect features with the male body. As such it explores issues of militarism, masculinity and colonialism. The north wing of the gallery comprises delicate figurative works in ink and bleach on paper, depicting “scarab suits”: military men without interiors strike heroic poses, men without exterior stripped down to their nervous and arterial systems are laid bare for the viewer’s inspection. The south wing, using the same technique, seems to present the conceptual development and research toward the show: internal views of the gestations of insect/human forms and studies of the surfaces of various scarab beetles. The central space is dominated by the more finished gallery works: intricately woven sculptures of suits, armour, chrysalis’s and so forth, as well as larger-scale “suit” drawings. Because the exhibition shows the interplay between the various processes involved in Oltmann’s explorations, it offers the viewer a gateway into the complex and multilayered processes involved in generating a body of work. The works cross-reference each other. Sculptural forms are made additively by weaving anodised aluminium and brasswire into intricately patternated surfaces. This obsessive additive approach is mirrored in two dimensions in works like Bleeder (13 October – 3 November) where exquisite ink matrixes are composed to build up an arterial image of the human body. In the In Amber and Scarab Suit serieses, marks are built up on the surface through staining and layering only to be bleached and deleted, which is congruous to the way in which Oltmann approaches the human form, emptying the figure, exposing its insides, constructing skins and membranes through weaving. In a sense the conceptual anatomy of the exhibition is woven together. Oltmann’s exploration of interiority and exteriority, vulnerability and monstrosity is embedded in the fusion between the insect and the militarised male body. The insect as an index for this theme manifests powerfully. In Armour, a suit of tightly woven aluminium, razor wire loops protrude into the viewer’s space and incise into the woven fabric. Caterpillar Suit presents us with the human form where its insides have been emptied and its skin has mutated into the soft ripples of the insect’s exterior punctuated by bright poisonous barbs or plumage. The sculptural suits seem to ask in a Kleinien sense if aggressiveness projects or introjects? They threaten the viewer, but also entice in their beautiful intricacy. Forms that cover the body (skin, suits, armour) are presented here ambivalently – the exoskeleton and absent interior, suggests at once an intimacy and vulnerability in the absence of life, registered in the delicately constructed, skin-like, defensive woven surfaces, and the monstrosity of the of armour.There is a withdrawal and ambivalence, a perpetual undoing through making in this body of work that reconfirms the conceptual and sensuous power of craft: its quiet hermeticism is its strength. Although there are pieces on the exhibition that do not quite fit into the thematic, such as Mandrake, the rest of the works are tightly conceived objects. Oltmann’s winning entry to the recent Sasol Wax Award lacked this resonance because it was not quiet, showing all of the flatness of a competition piece designed to make a statement. This recent body of work tends to withdraw rather than reach out. There seems something intrinsic to craft that lends itself the secretion of formal discovery.