Interview#17: Chris Coles
Chris grew up on the coast of Maine and after graduating from Brown University, received a Watson Fellowship to spend a year living in the Bajuni Islands off the coast of East Africa where he made a series of voyages up and down the coast in Swahili trading dhows. He has lived and worked in Europe, North America, Asia, the South Pacific, Australia and Greenland.
Chris is also a graduate of the British National Film and Television School and has taken art courses at the Otis School in Los Angeles. Among the films he has worked on are CHAPLIN (directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Robert Downey Jr.), L.A. STORY (directed by Mick Jackson and starring Steve Martin), RAINBOW WAR and BALLET ROBOTIQUE (both nominated for Academy Awards as best dramatic short), CUTTHROAT ISLAND (directed by Renee Harlin and starring Geena Davis), ROAD TO WELLVILLE (directed by Alan Parker and starring Anthony Hopkins), ROSARY MURDERS (directed by Fred Walton and starring Donald Sutherland, Charles Durning), the SUPERMAN films (directed by Richard Donner, Richard Lester, Jeannot Szwarc and starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Richard Pryor), OUT COLD (directed by Malcolm Mowbray and starring John Lithgow, Teri Garr), the tv series SIRENS (directed by Robert Butler and starring Jayne Brook) and many more.
Chris has had shows in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Singapore, Pattaya and Bangkok. The 1st book of his paintings, titled “Navigating the Bangkok Noir”, was recently published by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore and is available worldwide at bookstores and on Amazon.com .
RAP went to find out more about the person behind Bangkok Noir and we look into the nightlife of the metropolitan city of Bangkok. Check out the long yet informative dialogue with Chris below!
Question (Q): You were in the film industry for 25 years before settling down with painting. What made you change your career and how is it like now being a full time artist in Bangkok?
Chris Coles (Chris): I worked in the film industry, mostly on large budget films as a production manager, line producer and production executive for about 25 years, which was enough.
Painting had always been a hobby and once my daughter finished high school and entered university at MIT in Boston, I decided I’d had enough of the film industry and would have more fun and leave a more lasting legacy if I turned to painting full time. Since then, I’ve had shows in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Singapore, Pattaya and Bangkok, sold hundreds of paintings and just had my 1st book published, titled “Navigating the Bangkok Noir”, by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore.
Making movies is a very tedious group process involving hundreds of people, budgets, schedules, an infinity of practical obstacles and endless compromises while painting is one person in a room alone with a piece of paper or canvas coming up with an idea and implementing the idea without interference or constraints. I love not having to worry about where the trucks are going to park and where we’re going to get the extra 5 million dollars. I just sit, work quietly and realize my vision.
Q: You are constantly working and exploring on the Bangkok nightlife and also the lady-boy scene, which is one of Bangkok’s main attraction, or what the city is perceived to be. What sparked/s you to deal with this theme?
Chris: I got interested in using the Bangkok Nightlife as the background/stage for many of my paintings from my study of the German Expressionists and French Fauvists who often used the Berlin and Paris nightlife as settings for their paintings. There are so many extreme characters, so much color, so much human interaction and drama and not only is the theater of the Bangkok Nightlife interesting as what it is in itself, it is also a kind of metaphor for human behavior and personality in a more universal sense.
My interest in painting some of the tens of thousands of ladyboys living in Bangkok came sort of by accident when my daughter came home from school one day and told me that her art teacher had told her class that it was thought Leonardo de Vinci often used transvestite hookers who worked on the street outside his studio as models and that some people thought the basis for the famous ambiguity in the Mona Lisa painting was that the model for the painting had been a ladyboy.
As I often was drawn towards portraying ambiguity in my paintings, I thought, wow, there are so many ladyboys in the Bangkok Night and they are often super colorful and extreme, and certainly very ambiguous in their look, wouldn’t it be great to try to capture some of that ambiguity in a series of paintings of ladyboys.
My focus on is the face down to the shoulders, sometimes the hands and arms, where the ambiguity is playful and fun. Never on the crotch………
Q: Expressionist technique is not a foreign style today but also not an extremely popular method especially in today’s contemporary art scene. Tell us more about your choice of approach and what other forms of work do you explore or plan to investigate in the near future?
Chris: I like the Expressionist paintings from Germany in the 1920′s and 30′s very much. As well as their precursors, the Fauvist paintings from Paris circa 1900. I find the use of extreme color and distortion and the noir characters and situations portrayed to be a very relevant and apt style for the world and time we live in, especially Bangkok and most especially the Bangkok Night.
Q: Color of Day/Color of Night, your recent solo show seems to explore similar themes, as well as your new painting/book, Navigating Bangkok Noir. Do share with us about these two recent creations of yours.
Chris: My recent show at Koi Art Gallery in Bangkok featured some of my Bangkok Night paintings, some ladyboy paintings and for the first time, some of my expressionist-style flower paintings. The Opening Night was also the Bangkok Launch for my recently published “Navigating the Bangkok Noir” book which features some of the paintings that were in the show. It was a great night, hundreds of people showed up, including many of the prominent Bangkok Expat Crowd. I was photographed, interviewed for Thai tv and the book attracted a number of favorable reviews. All a necessary and fun part of being an artist. But now it’s time to get back to work painting again.
Q: What do you think of the classification of Bangkok’s night life, particularly the lady-boys scene? It attracts both Western and regional audience but what are the difference local Thai’s perception towards this?
Chris: Most of the nightlife in Bangkok revolves around Thais, probably 90 percent. The rest is divided up between Expats, Japanese executives/managers, other Asians, people from South Asia, Arabs, Iranians and even some Africans. The Ladyboy scene is big, some bars have 300 plus ladyboys on their payroll, but it is probably no more than ten percent of the overall nightlife scene in Bangkok.
Sometimes Thais, especially of the hi-so variety, tut-tut the immensity of the Bangkok Nightlife, even insinuating that it is somehow a problem of foreign visitors, especially non-Asian foreign visitors or “farang”.
But that is actually hypocritical nonsense as it is Thais themselves who comprise 90 percent of the nightlife consumers, customers and participants. It is just a Thai way of deflecting everyone’s attention from the actual reality of the Bangkok Nightlife, its industrial scale and the gigantic money flow going to the elite families of the very same people who are doing all the tut-tuting.
The tradition of a lively night entertainment scene has been around in Thailand for hundreds of years. Lots of lighting, colorful costumes, interesting venues, plenty of people, male, female and in-between. It’s part of what makes Thailand go and what puts Bangkok on the map. Without the nightlife, Bangkok would be just another huge grey Asian metropolis and far less interesting and fun.
Q: Sexuality is not a major issue in Thailand and with the wildly accepted sex-change operations and gay scene in Bangkok and Pattaya specifically, do you think there’s enough space for further development of the culture?
Chris: Very prominent figures in Thai life are openly gay, including high-ranking generals, heads of corporations and government bureaucrats. Ladyboys are ubiquitous, although they do suffer discrimination in many occupations, especially if they wish to rise through the executive ranks. But in general, a person’s sexuality is regarded as a private matter in Thailand, and so long as things are not violent or totally out of control in some embarrassing public way, no one really cares that much what people are getting up to in their private lives….except perhaps as an endless source of entertaining gossip.
It’s great for an artist not to have to worry at all about this whole area in terms of choosing what to paint and part of what makes Bangkok a great city for artists.
Q: How is the response towards LGBT lifestyle being translated into creative process?
Chris: Gay, lesbian and transgender themes and stories are incorporated into movies, tv dramas, comic book novels, paintings, just about all aspects of culture production in Bangkok and Thailand. The annual Miss Tiffiany contest in Pattaya for the world’s most beautiful ladyboy is a nationwide hit tv show. Occasionally, there is some squawking from someone but basically there is no real public support for suppressing portrayals of this area. Some of the best films coming out of Thailand, Beautiful Boxer for instance, feature ladyboy characters in the leading roles.
I don’t think any of the writers/artists/etc. make a big point of doing this so much as it’s all just part of the overall scene so it gets used and portrayed. One of the healthier more functional aspects of present-day Thailand I would say.
Q: Is there a strong community of LGBT artists in Bangkok? Likewise, any galleries and organizations that support this group of people?
Chris: I think the LGBT scene in Bangkok and Thailand is probably less organized and cohesive than in other cities and countries as there is so much tolerance at all levels in regard to this scene in Thailand, there’s not much reason or motivation to get organized.
I think in other countries where the tolerance and acceptance level is lower, people feel a much stronger need to politicize this area and these issues.
Q: Looking into a larger issue, how is the development of art scene in Bangkok?
Chris: The art/culture scene in present-day Bangkok is developing but still has a lot of unused potentials. The audience for some culture areas is quite limited due to most people having a fairly low income level and there is quite a lot of indirect censorship/cultural interference coming from a tiny group of bureaucrats and social elite who feel entitled to tell other people what they should be watching, reading, speaking and consuming. All part of the political dilemma and situation going on in Thailand at present. Until the overall political situation loosens up, the arts/culture scene’s growth will be stunted compared to what it could be if unleashed.
Q: Back to LGBT lifestyle, apart from the glamorous clubbing scenes, are there any activists and non-profit institutions that support and push boundary for the LGBT community, or maybe the lady-boys in particular?
Chris: There are probably more groups and organizations involved in furthering rights and standing of ladyboys than involved gays/lesbian issues in Bangkok and Thailand as the various pathways are so open already, especially in the gay/lesbian area, there’s not much left to do. I would say that class, ethnic background and skin-color discrimination/prejudice are much larger and more intractable issues and those areas do attract a lot of political organizing and protests.
Q: Last but not least, any last word for the LGBT community?
Chris: I think success in terms of civil rights and freedom of life-style is really measured by “the level of irrelevancy”. IE., in Thailand whether or not someone is gay or lesbian is pretty much irrelevant compared with some other places and societies. The goal of “irrelevancy” is also close to being attained in places like Los Angeles, New York, London, most of northern Europe and some other countries and places. In the long term, to me, that seems the best goal as, after all, people are better judged and measured by who they are, their talents, their skills, their willingness to work and contribute, to create, etc. Not by what they do in their bedrooms with other consenting adults.