Dr. Doug Sandle (2006)
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.
Dr. Sue Wilks (July, 2008)
Hoping Against All Hope: A response to Paul Digby’s Artwork
Feelings that arise and thoughts that are formed in response to an encounter with any artwork can only ever be subjective. Individual viewers will bring to bear on each viewing experience their constituent influences: emotional, professional, physical, educational, cultural and so on, together with often-conflicting feelings and ever changing moods and memories. In other words the stuff of lives being lived. I was reminded of these subjective dynamics, not in a consciously and critically self-reflexive sense, but through the direct physical response I experienced the first time I looked at the drawing/painting, City, produced by Paul Digby. Although the personal experiences that generated this physical (gut-wrenching) response to City are significant in the context of my own personal life stories, they are not important to detail in this text. To do so would be to reduce both experience and aesthetic activity to literal and symbolic translation, rather than to engage with these through creative thought processes. The physical response itself (as a trace element of my subjective experiences), however, can be useful because it provides me with a point of entry into thinking about City,
What emerges from City and the 2008 series of drawings/paintings that situate this artwork is, for me, a profound sense of struggle that is connected with the everyday difficulties people face as an outcome of the socially, economically, politically and culturally discursive forces that continually re-form and re-focus their lives, and also with the struggle to find meaning in life. This is not to suggest that there is a distinction between the struggle to physically survive and the struggle to find meaning in life, because minds and bodies operate interrelationally, not in an oppositional or independent manner.
This sense of struggle permeates both the 2008 series and earlier pieces, such as Corridor, 2004 and Bedroom, 2005. There is some consistency of image content throughout; interior and exterior architectural spaces, entrances and exits, light, closures and openings, but unlike the earlier works, the 2008 series gives form to human presence and emotion. Human presence is evident through absence in the earlier works, (because of course there would be no architecture, environment, landscape and so on without human intervention) and emotion is implicit to the content, but it is not rendered in an explicit manner.
Both the 2008 series and the earlier artworks I refer to articulate the timelessness of human emotions and of the need to find enduring meaning in life. In particular there are references to contemporary situations, events and ideologies that people have been subjected to in UK society during the past three decades, (and indeed are complicit with enabling to come into being). I’m referring here, for example, to political and industrial drives to generate ever-increasing profit margins, global conflicts and to the audit culture that objectifies and represses human subjectivity, all of which generate feelings of confusion, frustration, distress, alienation, isolation, failure and so on.
Writing about Paul Digby’s artwork the psychotherapist, academic and writer Doug Sandle comments, ‘(…) in focusing on current world events alongside enigmatic interiors in his recent paintings, he relates contemporary experiences to timeless human emotions’. Material issues and concerns will alter through; time, space, culture, geographical location, economical and political imperative and power regimes, but human emotions endure (Digby has previously stated that concepts of love and loss are intrinsic to his practice). The artist seems to be engaged in a struggle to hold on to the hope and belief that there is more to life than that which is directly experienced… a life whose certainties include death, oppositional difference, suffering and oppression. This sense of hope and belief in something beyond-what-is radiates through Paul Digby’s depiction of external light sources, or saturates the surfaces of his artworks via the luminosity of pigment. He renders this unknown, intangible and elusive sense of hope with the same kind of solidity and physicality as the spaces that situate it.
And so, while I perceive a sense of struggle and despair in these artworks I also perceive a sense of belief and hope. Hope, belief, longing and desire are inscribed in human emotion and concepts of love and loss. The 2008 series of drawings/paintings, for me, resonate with the desire to know something that can only be felt, and frustratingly, not at will. Intrinsic to this desire is a commitment to a belief in meaning, love and ethics… not as fixed truths, but as damaged, contradictory and ever shifting concepts.
 Paul Digby, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online, <http://www.axisweb.org/seCVPG.aspx?ARTISTID=5718> (accessed 21 July 2008).
 Paul Digby, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online, <http://www.axisweb.org/dlFULL.aspx?ESSAYID=109> (accessed 21 July 2008).
 Doug Sadler, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online, <http://www.axisweb.org/dlFULL.aspx?ESSAYID=109> (accessed 21 July 2008).
 The following quote is cited from a webpage that is no longer available. It was accessed online 21 July, 2008. On this page Paul Digby stated, ‘[M]y work is about portraying fundamentals found in the everyday by capturing the timeless feelings and thoughts that everyone experiences of love and loss’.
Joy. Few other words in the English language seem so blithe, so uncomplicated. Knowing its origins reveals little: gaudere in Latin (‘rejoice’), then the old French joie. We normally look to the grain of a word, to its double meanings or unexpected backstory, to get a feel for the texture of its concept. We want shadows, something dormant and unexplained that will give us a grip on it as we turn it over in our hands and examine it from every side. But this time, nothing . . . pure joy, sheer happiness.
This is joy’s mystery: its purity, no hidden emotion, no otherness. And by the same token, from the outside – watched by envious onlookers – it appears to lack almost any defining feature (‘all happy families are alike’, writes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina), any geography, beyond a fuzzy and pastel-hued rapture. It is only experienced from within, cannot truly be shared and once finished – like some emotional wasabi – is largely lost to memory, just as this writing can circle joy’s geometric perfection but offer no plausible descriptions.
Never a mask, it effaces all other states if only for an instant, paints itself across the wearer’s demeanour. Head up, eyes wide, feeling leaks out uncontrollably to meet what the body should otherwise resist. The face opens out in smiles, the chest broadens its gait, perhaps the mouth falls open: open to the world, to a slow bolt of pure sunlight that bleaches out every dark tone with an intensity free of calculation or value. For a moment, as joy unhooks us from cares and the burden of reason, everything is connected and radiant: pleasure is crowned king for a day.
Of course, joy would have none of this majesty were it not that we long for it in the face of tedium, oppression or despair. Nietzsche, for instance, sees joy as the ultimate human state, one that is precisely the overcoming of unhappiness or pain. A life-affirming principle, the special province of art in particular, joy absorbs suffering, turns it into power. It is this quality that, for the philosopher, gives joy a tragic quality (‘deeper still than grief’ says Zarathustra), something profound, beyond either pleasure or sorrow and through which the individual may begin to re-align the world.
But could we really live in a state of permanent joy – forgo the doubled nature of the world for an ideal of harmony and elation against which nothing else can be the measure? The French phrase joie de vivre promises most nearly to express this apparently impossible notion: life professed in the face of everything that should tell us otherwise, a well-spring of optimism impregnable against everyday cares. Again, an impulse of sweeping away, of the stunning absence of disappointment or dark, but now prolonged into a spirit of vitality that wants to turn everything in its path to pleasure.
You might find the promise of happiness extended far into the distance in a constructive form in a place such as Joyland, on the seafront of Great Yarmouth (there are Joylands around the world: Texas, Kansas, Shanghai, Lahore . . .), an island of tourist amusement since 1949. Little funfair rides, sideshows, an arcade: it’s bottled and gaudy, naturally, but there’s still something about this brand of joy that feels close to its truth: transient, intense, temporarily but completely ignoring the world beyond its limits. A world of props and flats, of things gaily painted and colourfully out of kilter. While the children shriek with pleasure the grown-ups look on, sceptical or indulgent, sensing something missing in their own inability to be taken in. Here’s a reminder that joy is above all watched over by the realm of childhood, one to which adults long to return but that for the most part they may only glimpse, always out of dimension.
The revelation of joy is its replication of an instant of the unfathomable state of our earlier life, a time when each thought, each emotion eclipses all that has gone before, with no cares for that unfolding thing that might come next. Like a line of gunpowder, it sparks and leaves nothing, perhaps just a faint line that traces the route of an intimate apocalypse.