The Norval Foundation in Cape Town is, through most of 2024, showing three concurrent and museum-quality art exhibitions, all focused on quite different SA artists — painters Alexis Preller and Cinga Samson, and sculptor Walter Oltmann.
Oltmann’s exhibition, titled Metamorphosis, is a marvellous and charming insight into the work of one of the country’s foremost sculptors. A long-time lecturer at Wits, from where he holds a PhD in Fine Arts, he has combined his academic career with his artistic practice, to great acclaim. Oltmann’s works have been included in exhibitions across SA and abroad, including in China and Italy. He has been the recipient of the Ampersand Fellowship, the Sasol Wax Art Award, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2001, and the Edoardo Villa Extraordinary Award for Sculpture in 2022. This latter award also included a residency, enabling Oltmann to produce an extensive body of work which was undertaken in the Villa-Legodi workshop at NIROX Sculpture Park where the works were publicly shown. A related publication, In Time, is forthcoming. The show at Norval includes multiple pieces drawn from this body of work.
The works are positioned against walls and on packing-crate style plinths in the atrium at the museum, which looks out through plate glass walls onto the sculpture garden, set into the wetland reserve of its grounds. This puts Oltmann’s uncanny figures against a backdrop that gives us pause to reflect on our place in a larger ecology of the natural world, how it changes and how we have changed it largely for the worse.
The decision is inspired. Oltmann’s work is characterised by anthropomorphised, alien-like creatures, often life-size or larger, which strike the viewer as insectoid. This sense of the title of the exhibition, a metamorphosis from one state to another, as a larva becomes an insect, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, is played with through a range of colourful and disturbing, yet beguiling, imaginary figures.
Oltmann amply demonstrates both his mastery of his chosen medium of wire in his work, as well as the playfulness and ambiguity his figurative works often embody. Some are almost cosplay-like insect costumes, some resemble acupunctured suits of armour, a protection against the world and a new species at the same time. Another subtle decision by curators Karel Nel and Ally Martinez is to disorientate the viewer with the hugely varying scale of Oltmann’s individual works. Some larger works, set on uncomfortably elevated plinths, can only be seen in context from a first-floor balcony vantage point. Other, much smaller works against walls, demand close-up attention. It is a call to see the ecosystem and its small components, to reflect on transformation and design.
The positioning of this enchanting exhibition between two large painting shows at the museum, all of them running for most of the year, is a reminder of the importance of institutions such as the Norval Foundation to archivally preserving our artistic and cultural life in SA.
Walter Oltmann at Norval Foundation
Until August 24