Walter Oltmann’s solo exhibition Penumbra, on at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, is a meticulous exploration of time and transformation through craft. The overriding notion of the exhibition is time, deep time, which is enacted in the creation of each work. The pieces in this exhibition encompass the mediums of print, drawing, painting and sculpture, which literally embody the subject matter through the fastidious nature of the process.
The main works in this show are flat sculptural pieces, woven out of thin aluminium wire. Layer upon layer builds up depth and shadow, transforming a 2-dimentional wall hanging into a 3-dimentional object. The result is like a fossilised doily that has become hard through immersion in the harsh African soil over millennia. The meticulous weaving of these works, together with the line work, brush strokes and etching marks of the others, all reflect the passing of time in the creation, as well as the Deep Time that the subject matter depicts.
In this exhibition Oltmann expands upon the motif of the mother and child, which he had explored in previous works. In this show, the mother and child are reincarnated in skeletal form, just two skulls, left from some forgotten time in our human evolutionary history. The two orb-like skulls hover in a delicate lace membrane, fragile and vulnerable. In other works the child has been discovered intact, a head connected to a body. But it remains a pathetic image of vulnerability: both alone, and naked in its skeletal form.
The mythical coelacanth, a living fossil, becomes a bridge across the millennia time gap between the single-cell amoebas that all life originated from, the moment in evolutionary time when a sea creature grew legs and walked onto land, and the fossils of our own hominid ancestors. It also therefore becomes metaphor for transformation; a thing that is itself, but also the potential and record of other things that have been and will become. The coelacanth becomes a moment stuck in time; a specimen suspended in a formaldehyde tank in a museum in Grahamstown. This strange fish of the deep swims through the exhibition, caught in a wire mesh in one work, the beam of light in a painting, and the dappled shadows of water in another.
The third thematic of the exhibition continues on from that of the coelacanth and transformation, morphing into a Kafkaesque exploration of the metamorphosed exoskeleton body of an insect. The hard, brittle shell becomes a suit of armour, hiding what lies within. Oltmann’s watercolours present an army of suited figures, marching off to some unknown battle. The suits become a kind of estranged answer to the naked skeletons of the mother and child, evolved over time, with the coelacanth swimming in between.