Paul Digby

Dr. Doug Sandle

Paul Digby and the Metaphysical

Paul Digby graduated from Norwich school of Art and Design in 1997, and although his work has developed away from his earlier student interest in three dimensional sculpture and installation, his articulation and exploration of the spatial and our relation to it continues to be a thematic concern in his two dimensional work. His most recent gouache work uses the motif of a simple three dimensional house shape (rather like a monopoly house), which is variously placed in relation to its spatial surroundings through changing viewpoints, different forms of perspective and a fluidity between the exterior and interior. That such is sometimes the subject of different framed views, reminiscence of the multi-screen monitors of a surveillance camera, ensures that his exploration of space is dynamic in its articulation of the relationships among self, object and location.However if this dynamic quality appropriately describes Digby’s formal analysis, the use of flat painterly surfaces and a graphic quality often combined with a seemingly distant horizon, imbues the imagery with a sense of stillness and timelessness. It is this sense of infinite timelessness, a phenomenological distillation of a sense of present, future and past, which gives his work a psychological edge where space is not just a geometric or surface space, but an entopic space – the space of mental imagery and dreams*. Digby’s house-like objects, their walls and windows and the landscapes in which they are sometimes situated inhabit an environment that is metaphysical in the De Chirico sense of otherworldly, enigmatic and with a surreal sense of imagined timelessness,

*Digby also acknowledges the influence of comics and computer games on this series of work. Comic images are often instilled with memory and nostalgia, and the virtual space of computer games has an otherworldliness that contributes to its fantasy or dream-like quality.

To some extent Digby’s house-like object can be thought of as a device such as De Chirico’s use of statues, arches and chimneys in creating his metaphysical landscapes, but as well as external objects, Digby’s work often refers to rooms and their interior components such as walls, windows and doors. Such interior spaces are usually empty and bare, creating an existential nothingness to contribute to the overall enigmatic quality. The sense of nothingness and timelessness in much of Digby’s two dimensional work may relate to his past interest in Buddhism, and he recalls how during meditation he used to ‘focus on abstract shapes during meditation and they would float high in the void of my mind’ (Digby 2006a) – a confirmation perhaps of the entopic origin of some of his imagery. In his Axis entry Digby reflects on nothingness, the void and emptiness, and significantly on the enigmatic aspect of trying to define nothingness. He writes (Axis 2006), ‘The paradox is how can you define nothing; because memory cannot define nothing as the memory is memory, so define nothing!’

Yet within his work there is within emptiness a presence, which perhaps is one engendered by a felt unease or even angst.

Such is particularly strong in The Light, a painting with a title reference to the name of a shopping and entertainment complex in the centre of Leeds. However, while The Light complex was a conscious source of initial reference, the nature of light as depicted in the work and its spiritual connotations only serves to underscore its strong metaphysical presence. The painting depicts a flat painterly floor surface that slopes to meet the wall of a room or corridor, against which is situated a large display case. The vitrine is empty except for a luminescence and haunting red light that fills the cabinet but is contained within it. The vitrine and the red light are further reflected in what appears to be a mirror on an adjacent side wall. On the other side of the cabinet there is an open window that depicts what appears to be a distant sea. The whole scene is done from a single viewpoint that emphasises the linear perspective of the room and the cabinet. The location and its relationship to the sea are undefined and ambiguous – the sea could be a distant view or the room space could be located within a ship. The emptiness of the room, along with the sea and its distant horizon creates an enigmatic timelessness reinforced by the empty vitrine and its mirror image. The whole scene, both linearly and in the use of colour, is beautifully balanced with an aesthetic presence that adds to the dream-like and meditative nature of the work.

Digby’s interest in rooms and the spaces defined by walls and floor surfaces are evident in a number of works and projects over recent years. As an artist in residence to mark the closure of at Highroyds psychiatric hospital, Digby worked with the reminiscences of others who had experienced the hospital to use the interior walls of the empty hospital as a ‘metaphor for being inside the mind’ (Digby 2006b). He used the walls and corridors as mural surfaces on which to depict realistic images, such as of a mounted fire extinguisher, or a window grill, – motifs which served to both decorate the walls and play with and intensify the institutional nature of the environment. His interest in the hospital continued though using photographs of the deserted corridors and wards as a source material for a series of drawings, although also using memory to explore his own personal response to the hospital environment. Unlike the hospital corridors depicted by Catherine Yass or Damien Hirst, whose use of photography and new media are explicit within the images produced, Digby’s rooms and corridors are executed in a traditional looking style with heavy black graphite that give them a Piranesi reference. These inscapes also have a metaphysical quality, and while Digby sees them to some extent as places of refuge, they have none the less an ominous and disturbing presence, lifted only by the depiction of light and its illuminated surfaces. The crack which gives the title of one of these drawings shows a dark threatening split appearing in a corridor floor of an Escher like environment. The interplay between dark and light again seem to imbue the work with a spiritual presence, and the light provides some reassuring quality that Digby regards as more pertinent within this series than the otherwise potentially oppressive darkness of the graphite used to depict the images. In writing about this, Digby (2006a) recalls a repeated phrase, ‘you bring light into a dark space’, which features in a piece of music by Underworld. The concept of light in relation to dark has both metaphorical and personal connotations for Digby, which again refer to his past interest in Buddhism. That these inscapes are also metaphors for the mind is suggested by Digby’s comments that the objects and shapes depicted had for him an archetypal presence (Digby 2006b).

Digby’s graphic skill, mature sense of colour and his expertise in manipulating the picture surface are the result of conscientious research, as evidenced by a series of drawings and sketches done during 2000 -03. In this body of work the picture surface, object and expressive techniques are extensively explored and the foundations of later visual concerns and particular motifs are clearly established with energy and inventiveness. The seriousness with which Digby takes his artistic concerns is matched by his commitment to the application of art for social and individual well-being. As someone who has benefited from the therapeutic aspects of creative practice within his own development, Digby brings his skills and experiences to work with others, for example, his work with the homeless, with those with mental health problems, his artist residency at Rampton and his role in the Mind Odyssey movement. Digby (2002, p. 20) advocates that ‘art can represent or make real mental processes that are painful or traumatic. This may be in a representational way of something that has happened, or in a symbolic way giving personal meaning and expression to and mastery over mental processes’. In his most recent work, the house object, which he sees as archetypal of domesticity, is sometimes located in various spatial juxtapositions to a forest like environment. The forest he sees as a metaphor for isolation and as he comments, “I work with people that are isolated though living in vast forests metaphorically speaking….the work is to do with isolation and mental illness” (Digby, 2006b). In this series of work, the house and its setting are not only devices for articulating the spatial dynamics of the relationship between the three dimensional and the flat surface, but are metaphors for the human condition, – for the interplay between a self constructed domesticity and an uninhabited, potentially engulfing and agoraphobic ‘other’ world.

If Digby’s aesthetic concerns are metaphysical, his commitment to the application of art for social and individual development is firmly placed within the real world and the exigencies of everyday experience. It is his concern for such dualities; the spiritual within the physical environment, the present within a sense of timelessness and the metaphysical applied to the everyday, combined with skilful technique and sensitivity that give to his art both creative maturity and aesthetic quality.

Doug Sandle (2006)