ART / In the Studio: The body in question: Simon English

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The Independent Culture
The door to Simon English's studio is rarely open. Although he shares Acme's huge Stratford studio space with 80 other artists, for English, the painter's life is one of self-imposed isolation. The walls of his work space echo the parameters of claustrophobic paintings in which he explores the physical expression of human emotion.

'Body language is extremely important to me,' says English and the bodies which speak from his paintings are specifically nude and male. Their straining muscular torsos range across canvases, glazed to a mirror- like smoothness which lifts them relentlessly to the viewer's gaze. Seen by many as 'visions of hell', these paintings are more readily understood by the gay community as studies of their own club culture.

'The paintings are driven by the way men see men. There's a feeling of voyeurism and a lot of 'scanning' and tactical movement.' On his studio floor, English marks out the ritual movements of this demi-monde using lines of tape, and places himself and his models at spots along the curve of a circle or figure of eight.

The resulting studies, pinned to the wall, resemble Eadweard Muybridge's 1880s chronophotographs of figures in motion. Alongside hang other nude sketches which, although drawn from the artist's mind, might be the anatomical esquisses of a 19th- century academician.

On the opposite wall, English has hung the second element of his paintings - the taut geometrical structures that confine his figures and create a tension foreshadowed in his working method: 'I work instinctively,' he says. 'It's like extempore dance - like choreography. But there's also this need for a logic to work things out. It's like an actor walking on to the stage. You have your lines worked out and then over time you learn to improvise. The structures locate space and also rehearse the movements of the figures. I want to find a way of drawing the viewer into my paintings. I want them to follow and ultimately to overtake the figures.'

English is aware that it would be easy to allow his instinctive, improvised use of paint in the figurative element to become over-dominant. Such freedom is far from his purpose. Rather than allow his figures to blend increasingly into the background, he intends to increase the distinction between the two. 'My work needs to become more obvious, more clearly figurative. I have to be clear when I want a figure to be specific.' Only through this can English further explore his chosen theme. 'I'm now becoming more concerned with movement and change of pace. I want to understand how people check each other out. In a sense I'm courting an arena. I'm cruising.'

Simon English's work is at the Saatchi Gallery to August