Paul Digby is a Yorkshire-based contemporary painter and installation artist. He studied at York College, before graduating from Norwich University of the Arts in 1997. Paul exhibited and worked with the non-arts sector including Leeds Mental Health Trust before increasingly gaining recognition in 2001 and 2002. This article will address his ‘At Home and At Work‘ series of paintings. I want to examine the way in which Paul engages with the human condition – our suffering, isolation, alienation – while contemplating ways in which these works are somehow relieving in their articulation of conditions we all have in common.
Relating to ‘At Home and At Work’, Paul explains that he regularly teaches in a Community Group setting, often within socially deprived areas, and that these experiences drive him to depict what he sees. The artist portrays emotive scenes “as a stimuli for the viewer to respond to”; the work is at once stimuli and responsive, in that as the artist, Paul responds to the emotive topics he seeks to address. He wishes to use his position positively, creating works that earnestly articulate everyday experiences and issues. He explains that as his work has progressed over the years, he realises that developing a social conscience has influenced the content of the artwork, but emphasises that he remains primarily engaged with ‘art for art’s sake’.
This series is affecting through its blatancy; its immediate impact and the repetition of solitary figures with their heads in their hands. The variation of location and unrelenting suffering of the figures within bold and bright locations intensifies the message – the light does not have the power to cast away the issues these people face. I feel that this daylight exemplifies the ongoing mental anguish of the figures as they collapse in isolation, surrounded by everyday interiors, which add little protection or comfort. The despairing human beings are bound within these various structures, including hotel rooms, bedrooms, army tanks, airport lounges, offices and toilet cubicles. The structures enforce a sense of entrapment but also add a strong sense of familiarity, and, potentially, nostalgia.
“The flat poster-paint colours of Paul Digby’s paintings relate intriguingly to their emotional ambiguity;
their ubiquitous searing blue skies are particularly haunting.” (1)
Viewing the series as a slideshow, slowly, one after the other, I feel moved. These paintings encourage the viewer to peer into the uncomfortable and tortuous moments experienced by lone human beings, while the figures themselves are entirely bound up within their own concerns. Consequently, we may view the works and become bound up once more with ourselves, relating these images to times when we personally have experienced such misery and helplessness.
The paintings have a certain clinical edge. They are impartial in a sense – the faces are concealed, we are unable to know what situation these people are in, and they remain solitary, untouched by our presence, with no eye contact or sense of the viewer’s presence. We are able to view these people from angles otherwise unlikely, such as the man in a cubicle viewed from above, or the man within a hotel room who is seen closely through a tower block window.
The paintings highlight the sense in which we each share these moments – we each suffer, are at times isolated and feel alienated. In this we are not alone. In solitude there is time to come to that realisation. We see these figures in moments of pain, but these are momentary glimpses, and one can imagine, for example, the lady in the airport lounge taking this moment to despair before picking up her bag and going home, to move on from the situation in some way, if initially only physically.
The artist explains that he references a number of artists within his work, including Roy Lichtenstein, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet and Edward Hopper. This is apparent in the works’ stillness – their flat poster-like quality – and the artists’ intrigue in the geometric. He is also interested in psychology, particularly the work of Joan Raphael-Leff and Bruce Hood. Digby has always drawn, sculpted and painted. During his life he has been encouraged by many people including current Arts Professionals, University and College tutors, and friends and family. He feels lucky to have had this support during his career so far.
Paul is currently working on a series of portraits of people expressing joy. This must be an entirely different experience to painting the tumultuous series discussed here. His new work will be displayed at The Tetley in 2015, alongside around one hundred portraits drawn by Leeds school children, as well as interviews of the portrait subjects. An accompanying exhibition will be held at Gallery Munro House in Leeds, consisting of previous portraits by the artist. The project is sponsored by Arts Council England. Paul aims for his new works to tour during 2015 – he is currently approaching venues in order for this to happen.
The artist is also a member of the Yorkshire and Humber Visual Arts Network. He is enthused by the group as they aim to provide opportunities, contributing towards the formation of a supportive network for artists and arts professionals within this region.
I ask Paul, “What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?”
He responds, “Simply, to keep making work and draw every day”.
Paul Digby, ‘Flat’. 2011-12. Gouache on paper. 75 x 52 cm.
Paul Digby, ‘Desert’. 2011-12. Gouache on paper. 75 x 52 cm.
Paul Digby, ‘Airport’. 2011-12. Gouache on paper, 75 x 52 cm.
Paul Digby, ‘Buildings’. 2011-12. Gouache on paper. 75 x 52 cm.
Paul Digby, ‘Toilette’. 2011-12. Gouache on paper, 75 x 52 cm.
(1) Dr Sam Francis. Source.
Katherine April Caddy, 4th August 2014.