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.
1 Paul Digby, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online,
2 Paul Digby, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online,
3 Doug Sadler, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, available online,
4 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’.
This article was originally published in Art Fist issue 4
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