BACK TO THE CAVE: Sculpture goes Underground

Until the end of August visitors of the Forest of Dean in England can experience a subterranean exhibition of contemporary sculpture in the extraordinary environment of the Clearwell Caves.

Clearwell Caves are part of a network of more than 600 acres of iron-rich caves that have been mined for ochre pigments and iron ore for over 4,500 years. The subterranean caverns were known to miners as ‘galleries’, ten of these have been opened to the public and now play host to this landmark exhibition, curated by Gallery Pangolin, taking sculpture ‘Back to the Cave’.

“Clearwell Caves have been part of our family for more than 50 years. The rock, the darkness and the endless comforting drips of water have become our everyday life. The pigment which blankets the rock has penetrated our clothing and skin and even our dogs, like Jon Buck’s Longdog, are often tinged with a pleasant red oxide hue. The mycelium of tunnels and caverns which weave their way beneath the hillside of Clearwell Meend are constantly in our minds. We are forever trying to think of new ways for people to experience and be inspired by this extraordinary space and, when we visited an exhibition by Gallery Pangolin in 2014, we could not help but imagine the possibilities of a collaboration in the Caves.” The Wright family (owners of the exhibition venue Clearwell Caves)

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Longdog, 2005, Jon Buck b.1951, Bronze, Edition of 5, 143 x 173 x 25.5 cm


“Longdog is the simple primitive dog of childhood. It is derived from the flattened-out archetypal drawing that a child might make but equally it has a universal formal geometry which has been the language of art since prehistory.” Jon Buck

Although Art as we know it started deep underground, caves have not, until now, been used as a venue for contemporary sculpture.

International in scope and with subjects and materials chosen to complement this unique environment, ‘Back to the Cave’ references the history of cave art, prehistoric cave dwellers and the more recent uses of caves.

We see this exhibition as a new way of experiencing contemporary sculpture outside the confines of the white-walled gallery and evokes an atmosphere akin to that of the prehistoric era with atmospheric lighting providing a fresh and exciting way to see sculpture.

“No one who has visited the Palaeolithic painted caves can fail to be moved not only by the beauty of the paintings and engravings but by the special and unique environment. With ‘Back to the Cave’ we aim to create a different but equally enthralling feeling, in a novel way to experience contemporary and Modern sculpture.” Rungwe Kingdon

There are two site-specific pieces in the exhibition. Street artist STIK has painted directly onto the wall of the cave, using ochre mined from the Caves at Clearwell:

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The Ochre Man, 2022, STIK b. 1951, Red Ochre on Limestone, Unique, 800 x 800 cm

“The Ochre Man represents the first art emerging from the cave. The figure is painted in raw, red ochre from deep within the cave, mixed only with water and applied by hand as humans have done since the beginning of time. The body is formed of the natural cracks and contours of the rugged limestone bringing the cave itself to life. The ceiling of the cave is illuminated to show the warm red glow of the natural ochre deposits formed there when the earth was still young.

The artwork was made with the blessing of the family who own the cave and carry the ancient tradition of ‘free mining’ to produce small batches of red, orange, yellow and purple ochre for artists. No artificial binders or colourants were used, great care was taken to avoid historical markings and no natural habitats were disturbed in the production of this piece.” STIK

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Mirage, 2022, Susie MacMurray b. 1959, Silver Plated Copper Wire, Unique, 200 x 180 x 100 cm approx.


Susie MacMurray, known for her architectural installations was inspired by a trip to the caves.

‘When I visited Clearwell Caves I was particularly struck by the spot where people have thrown coins into a pool of water Instead of remaining pristine and glittering they quickly become ossified by the minerals present, and are gradually absorbed back into the rock. This made me think about the ritual practices stretching back across many cultures of tossing coins, and making offerings for good luck, wealth and health.

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Consider the Risk, 2020, Polly Morgan, Painted Polyurethane, Unique, 83 x 30 x cm

There is a poetic irony in ‘toiled for’ wealth extracted from the earth being ultimately reclaimed, fossilised and absorbed back into the rock. Before long it is as if it never existed. It made me think about the length of a human life in relation to geological time. On that scale the glittering mirage of the pursuit of wealth, power over others and permanence could seem a fool’s errand.’ Susie MacMurray


Social media and the COVID-19 pandemic provide the context for new abstract sculptures that use the highly decorative hides of snakes and the trompe l'oeil designs in nail artistry to comment on the disparity between surface and reality. In an age where our digital selves are experienced by more people than our physical selves, Morgan uses veneers as a metaphor to examine our need to contain, control and conceal. In her juxtapositions of animal forms constrained within man-made structures, the artist highlights the unavoidable creep of nature in our lives and the impossibility of absolute restraint. Corset-like cast polystyrene structures struggle to contain taxi-dermy snakes that contort and spill from openings, alluding to the distorting effect that social media has on our physical selves.

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Beast IX, 1956, Lynn Chadwick 1914 - 2003, Bronze, Edition of 6, 95 x 78 x 28 cm


“There is a unique painting of a bison in the Altamira painted cave; head held vertically upwards, pointed hooves straight down and its tail also vertical above its back. This striking image once seen is never forgotten. In its stance Chadwicks ‘Beast IX’ stands like an echo of this primal painting, its 20th Century incarnation bringing a fundamental hint of recognition to the modernist aesthetic and bestial vitality of the world regenerating post WWII.” Rungwe Kingdon

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Burning Spear, 2021, Tavares Strachan b.1979, Wax, Unique, 43 x 26 x 30 cm


“The title “Burning spear” is a reference to Jamaican roots reggae artist from the 1970s who is known for his eloquent word play and socially conscious lyrics. Burning spear also harks back to the ancient African fire keepers, whose jobs were to mind the fire for an entire village. If the fire went out then the village was without its light, fuel and soul. 
This work is an homage to Zumbi dos Palamares, a leader against slavery, a king, a freedom fighter but most importantly a keeper of the fire.” Tavares Strachan

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Line of Silence, 1991, Ann Christopher b. 1947, Bronze, Edition of 5, 193 x 60.5 x 35.5 cm

“It stands to attention quietly watching the world – allowing a glimpse of beyond through a controlled split. 
Face-on presenting a solid facade – from its sides a spare thin line is punctured by two projecting straps as if unpeeling from the space between. 
It is saying I stand here in peaceful silence.” Ann Christopher


About the Gallery and the exhibition

Gallery Pangolin is one of the few galleries to specialise in sculpture and related drawings, with an established reputation for works of quality and excellence by both Modern and contemporary artists.

The initial inspiration for the gallery was the need for a showcase for the excellent sculpture cast at Pangolin Editions. Over the past thirty years we have expanded enormously and now embrace a wide range of activities including major solo shows, publications and collaborations with other galleries and museums. We also co-ordinate public commissions, manage artists' estates and act as artists agents.

Gallery Pangolin curates ‘in house’ exhibitions as well as exhibitions in other environments, responsible for the hugely successful Crucible exhibitions in Gloucester Cathedral in 2010 and 2014 as well as numerous other venues.

An illustrated catalogue accompanies the BACK TO THE CAVE exhibition, with an introduction by Rungwe Kingdon and photography by Steve Russell Studios.    
Due to popular demand the exhibition dates have been extended, the exhibition will now continue from the 23rd July until the 29th August.

‘Back to the Cave’ includes 60 pieces of sculpture by 47 international artists:

Anthony Abrahams, Kenneth Armitage RA, Bruce Beasley, Nick Bibby, Hamish Black, Ralph Brown RA, Jon Buck, Halima Cassell MBE, Daniel Chadwick, Lynn Chadwick RA, Ann Christopher RA, Geoffrey Clarke RA, Mat Collishaw, Michael Cooper, Terence Coventry, Geoffrey Dashwood, Abigail Fallis, Sue Freeborough, George Fullard ARA, Maggi Hambling CBE, Damien Hirst, John Hoskin, Steve Hurst, Michael Joo, Jonathan Kenworthy, Jonathan Kingdon, Anders Krisár, Sarah Lucas, David Mach RA, Susie MacMurray, Anita Mandl, Charlotte Mayer, Polly Morgan, Eilis O’Connell RHA, Isaac Okwir, Peter Oloya, Eduardo Paolozzi CBE RA, Pangolin Designs, Hans-Ulrich Pauly, Tom Price, Peter Randall-Page RA, STIK, Tavares Strachan, Almuth Tebbenhoff, William Tucker RA, Deborah van der Beek, Jason Wason.

Venue address: Clearwell Caves, The Rocks, Clearwell, Coleford GL16 8JR

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Author: Sally James
Over the last 20 years, Gallery Manager Sally James designs, curates and produces major exhibitions at extraordinary venues and 'in-house' for Gallery Pangolin who specialise in sculpture.

Published: August 2022


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