Get out the tube at Kings Cross and head towards York Road, which involves crossing the concourse outside the mainline train station. Not surprisingly, it’s a bustling space with people heading about in all directions: some in a hurry rushing to catch trains to take them out of the capital while others, just arrived, look around confused, trying to figure out where to go next and how to get there. Then there are the people just sat about on the uncomfortable-looking metal blocks that act as benches – smoking cigarettes, reading the paper or looking aimlessly into the distance. All are killing time one way or another as they each wait for their own personal Godot to turn up, whether it’s news about the rescheduling of a delayed departure, the text that will announce the imminent arrival of a long distance relative or just the inspiration to get up and move on to somewhere else. Doubtless, there are half a dozen discreetly sited CCTV cameras all looking down on this mundane scene while somewhere in a dark room someone is sat scanning the results of all this surveillance and hoping that the happy mundanities will continue. Although, maybe these days artificial intelligence has entered the security world and instead of a person getting bored out their brains looking at the screens it’s now left to the unblinking eye of an untiring computer, preprogrammed to identify the suspicious behaviourial patterns that indicate something horrible might be about to occur. In which case, I can’t help wondering whether it’s looking at me and running through its millions of lines of code trying to decide whether to send out the sniffer dogs and the men with tasers. For, instead of walking directly from the underground exit in a straight line to York Road, I’ve got distracted by the great lump of bronze that’s been dumped on the path ahead of me and have started to circumnavigate it, wandering up and down, back and forth, round and round.
There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, officer. I’m just trying to find the proper sightline to look at this piece of Henry Moore sculpture. Ok, it’s a bit of an abstract shape with lumps and spikes and holes but it seems to me that it still has a definite front and back and finally, I think, I manage to find it and so get the feeling that I’m finally seeing the thing the way that Henry wanted me to see it. Well, up to a point. I feel confident I’m looking at the front but I can’t quite believe that the sculptor would really have wanted his mighty artwork to have been diminished by being placed in quite such a busy setting. As far as I can tell I’m the only person looking at the work and I’m having a hard time seeing it properly since there are so many people all coming and going and generally blocking the view. But that’s not the only problem. Moore famously drew inspiration for his work from nature, incorporating its forms directly into his sculptures, whether it was the curve of a thigh bone, the twist of a shell or the roll of a hill. Consequently, his sculptures tend to work best outside the urban environment and placed in the countryside where their shapes can echo and resonate with those that surround them, and where the soft warm colour of their bronze exterior can be complemented by the variegated shades of green from the surrounding grasses, fields and foliage. Sadly there’s not much of that organic kind of stuff in Kings Cross. Ok, there are a couple of thinnish trees but they can’t really compete with the bright plastic colours on the nearby MacDonald’s or those projecting forth from the tatty row of shops that make up the Euston Road backdrop. Currently the sculpture is a bit like a tiger or one of those other noble animals that gets locked in a cage at the zoo when logic and compassion demands it be released into the wild and allowed to settle in its natural habitat. Hopefully, one day Moore’s unhappy bronze will be relocated away from this current, totally unsuitable, location and more sensibly resited and allowed a more respectful residence in somewhere like Dartmoor or Salisbury Plain or even settled in one of the London Parks. Following which, perhaps something more appropriate could be found to distract the attention of the weary commuters and intercity travellers – maybe one of Oldenburg’s comic gigantist paperclips or clothes pegs or an Anish Kapoor’s super shiny elipsoid.
Anyway, enough of this diversion and on to York Road and the few hundred yards to get to Pangolin London which, appropriately enough, is now showing its Sculpture in the Garden exhibition. As befits the theme, the gallery space has been given a makeover and converted into a lush bucolic heaven, a veritable Garden of Eden. Well, not exactly, but the staff have done quite a good job rounding off the edges of the white box space and giving it a green rubdown. So there’s fake grass matting, a bit of trellis, troughs filled with an assortment of trees, ferns and shrubs and even a water feature courtesy of William Pye and his Triple Spout fountain. I’d be exaggerating if I said I felt like I’d been transported to the depths of the Amazonian rainforest or even my own back garden when, in fact, it’s more like a feature you might find in the local garden centre, but it’s kind of fun. And even if it’s a bit of a daft idea, it manages to put a smile on my face and help me forget the grey horror of Kings Cross. A dozen or so sculptures lurk amongst the greenery, most strikingly Michael Cooper’s Large Snail which is, indeed, very large and sufficient to disconcert most gardeners if not actually give them palpitations. There are a couple of other, more sensibly sized, animals here including Terence Coventry’s Jackdaws on Ridge, Breon O’Casey’s Blue Bird and the snake that Anthony Abrahams has chosen to use as a belt and wrap around his study of woman who’s wearing nothing else, except for a rather grumpy looking expression. As for the other semi-figurative work, there’s a typically chunky Lynn Chadwick Sitting Figure and a thin, yellow-painted steel tree by Almuth Tebbenhoff but then the rest of the works are pure, abstracted forms. There’s nothing very Moore-ish among them although, I suppose, the vermiform incisions that cover Peter Randall-Page’s granite boulders look a bit organical. Finally there are some hard edges to contrast against all the soft green surroundings in the form of a couple of geometric pieces, with a white grid from Jeff Lowe and a pair of intertwined spirals of small bronze rods from Charlotte Mayer.
On the whole, there’s nothing terribly radical here, just rather a pleasant short walk through a representation of what nowadays would be considered to be the slightly more conservative strands of traditional British Modernist sculpture. Which, considering the English garden setting, seems sort of appropriate.
If time allows then there’s also a sculpture trail to follow that leads out from Pangolin and all around Kings Place, the sort of mini-mall complex of offices and dining spaces, into which the gallery is set. And this, metaphorically, takes me back to where I started since it re-introduces the problem of just how tricky it can be to place sculptures in appropriate settings. Again, most of the pieces are smallish bronzes with a mix of abstract and stylised figurative works so there’s another pair of Chadwick’s angulated sitters; various animals – a rooster, a baboon, a hog, some more birds – and then a lot of abstraction that varies from a couple of William Tucker’s amorphous lumps to the more mechanical construction of Geoffrey Clarke. I think it’s fair to say that most of the work inside the building sits reasonably well, although maybe each of the individual sculptors would have preferred their works to be made more of a feature, rather than being subsumed into a sort of generalised background ornamentation as they are here. But going outside is unfortunately altogether a less pleasant experience which is a pity really since the view, looking directly on to a canal, complete with pretty little boats, is potentially rather a charming one. Part of the problem is that this little strip of al fresco walkway is where the building’s smokers congregate but it’s not just that the viewer has to dodge the puffers’ polluting fumes. The space to display the sculptures is severely constrained by all the various chairs, tables and other random equipment associated with the dining space. As a result, some of the artworks are either hard to get a proper look at or else so surrounded by clutter that it’s not really possible to focus on them. Placing sculpture outside the normal gallery setting is such a nice idea but if, for whatever reason, it can’t be done with sufficient consideration and respect for the artworks, then it’s probably best not done at all.