Monday, May 30, 2011

Rainbow Arts Project Kelvin Atmadibrata Interviews Chris Coles

Bangkok Noir Artist Chris Coles at Koi Art Gallery Bangkok April 2011

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 .

For further information, please go to the Bangkok Noir blog at: ; or:

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.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hello Girl Walking Street Pattaya

Hello Girl Walking Street Pattaya - Chris Coles
Only 18, she's just started working outside a bar on Walking Street Pattaya, holding a sign and repeating over and over to the tens of thousands of passerbys, "Hello, hello, draft beer 70 baht."

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Female Panther in the Bangkok Night....

Female Panther in the Bangkok Night - Chris Coles
.....a female panther hunting in the Bangkok Night, looking for a large slow-moving animal with a slight limp....hoping to bring her young cubs something fresh to eat.......

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Baccara Bar Soi Cowboy Superstar

Baccara Bar Superstar - Chris Coles
She's a Superstar at Baccara Bar on Soi Cowboy, the Number One Bar in the history of Bangkok Expat nightlife......earning 100,000+ Baht per month, ten to twenty times Thailand's average monthly wage......a divorced mother of a 4 year old son living with her own mother and sister back in Chaiyaphum one of the poorest parts of Isan, the most impoverished part of Thailand.......where the average farm worker puts in 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 30 days a month and is paid 150 Baht per day.....

Having finished school at age 13, at the end of her 6th grade, with no Alimony or Child Support, with her father dead and her elderly mother completely dependent on her financially, what else is this Superstar Isan female to do.....tall, statuesque, stunning, a dazzling smile that can light up the world with a personality to match.......and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men....

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"The Color of Noir" - Steve Hands interviews Chris Coles for TRAVERSING THE ORIENT Magazine

Upstairs at Baccara - Chris Coles
The Koi Gallery opening of Chris Coles' latest exhibition, "Color of Night - Color of Day" (jointly with Anita Suputipong) was the most bizarre opening I've yet attended in Bangkok. Coles was simultaneously launching his new book, "Navigating the Bangkok Noir". His paintings (Color of Night) are expressionist portrayals of the Thai bar scene, in a riot of garish primary colours, and no greater contrast could be found than with Miss Anita's (Color of Day) delicate pastel portrayals of refined ladies with Ascot hats and cute animals. While Coles' work compares favorably with such German Expressionists as Franz Marc or Emil Nolde, Miss Anita's are more evocative of a Quality street chocolate tin from the 1960's.

But when I arrived at the opening just before the scheduled 7pm start, it was clear who most of the audience was there to see - a bevy of eight or ten Khun Yings made me hope they'd reinforced the mezzanine, which looked like it could collapse under the weight of the combined hairdos. Local film crews took pictures of Hi-So notables presenting bouquets to the ravishing Miss Anita, while everyone turned their back on the ravaged noir nightlife of Chris Coles' Bangkok.

But by 8pm, the Kuhn Yings and their entourage of bodyguards, limo drivers, camera crews, nephews, etc. had departed, and been replaced by a predominantly ex-pat crowd of notables there to see Coles' work -- like writer Christopher G. Moore, who wrote the intro to Coles' book, and two of whose books carry Chris Coles paintings on the covers. A Soi Cowboy sort of crowd who appreciate Coles for portraying the nightlife as it appears to them, not as Diane Arbus circus freak portrayals of mainstream photojournalism.

TTO: Tell me about your artistic training.

COLES: I went to the British National Film and Television School in England. I was a production student but it was the talented people around me that counted -- for instance, I worked with the cameraman Roger Deakins, who has since gone on to do most of the Coen brothers' films -- he did my graduation film. Working with these kind of people, I learned what makes things visually interesting.

My first job was on SUPERMAN as a gopher/runner in the Art Department for the genius Production Designer Stuart Craig. It was very interesting, the opportunity to just be in the room and hear the discussions, to see how Stuart and his group put together visual ideas.

After that I worked on SUPERMAN II and III. And SUPERGIRL, which luckily put that production company out of business, the the next film was going to be SUPERDOG which would have been really embarrassing.

My hobby has always been drawing and sketching, and my mother and her two sisters are all artists, so in the 1990's I took some courses at the Otis School of Design in Los Angeles which is a great art school. Then I came over to Thailand to do a big movie, and I bought a condo in Bangkok because it was so cheap and because I really liked Bangkok. I've lived in New York, London, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi, but the Sukhumvit neighborhood of Bangkok is one of the great urban neighborhoods for an artist.

My sketches led to paintings and especially learning to love the French Fauvist painters. They hated classical art and Impressionism, which they saw as pretty and boring. The Fauvists made a point of offending the Impressionists. And then the German artists said -- we can do even better than that. They'd been through World War I, with all its voilence and dis-location, so they started to paint these really ugly, mean works -- Grosz, Dix, Beckmann. The fascists took great offense at these paintings -- they even banned Emil Nolde from painting completely.

TTO: So are you disappointed you haven't been banned yet?

COLES: Being banned is a double-edged sword. Art isn't considered important in Thailand -- it's not like some trendy club or famous movie star showing too much skin, or three young girls dancing topless on a truck -- art is way down the scale. In some ways it would be great, but banning here is totally Draconian -- no artist could function if they were banned. You're hungry for fame but you want to continue working.

Some gallery owners here like my pictures but they don't like the subject matter. I pointed out to one owner he had a special massage parlour next door, with 50 ladies and several hundred customers a day -- I asked him why he felt uncomfortable with that world portrayed on the wall of his gallery when the world itself was on the other side of the gallery's wall. He got tense, and said, "Yes, I know it exists, but I try not to think about it." And I said, "If you want it diminished, the first step is to realize what it is, the enormity of it, the effect it has on society. Unless you open up the discussion of it, how can you change it?"

Art and literature doesn't give something the stamp of approval merely by portraying it -- which makes sense to a Western mind but not to a lot of people here in Thailand. A lot of Thais say art should be pleasant, relaxing, which I think is a valid point of view. But in the West, art has a different role -- to jolt people out of their everyday life, to see things in a fresh way.

Soi Cowboy - Chris Coles
TTO: In terms of your subject matter, how do you feel about Soi Cowboy?

COLES: In the spectrum of such places, it's nowhere near as bad as some of them. The employees are free to come and go. Some of the bars are very successful, the girls working there are making maybe 50 to 100,000 baht a month. So from an economic point of view, they're doing very well, although from a personal point of view, it might be a very high psychological cost.

On the street level, there's a lot of neon. It's aesthetically very attractive, like watching a movie. A lot of bars now have an outside area, so you can just sit outside, chat and soak up the ambiance -- much like RCA. I use it because it's visually interesting -- there's a lot of situations, a lot of colour and a lot of movement.

Right now I'm trying to paint Sukhumvit Soi 3 -- I'm having a difficult time with it -- there's nothing that really works as entertainment, it's purely a very noir canvas, people doing very noir things. I go down there to work, not to enjoy it.

TTO: So what does "noir" mean to you?

COLES: The human being has many sides -- an idealistic side, he wants to help, to leave something better behind. However, the human being also has a noir side. It's very primitive. Darwinian, violent, selfish, mean, cruel, unfeeling....look at human history, where horrible events take place and millions get swept away. You have to shake your head at how bad the human animal is.

Bangkok Ladyboy - Chris Coles
TTO: Tell be about the "Bangkok Ladyboy".

COLES: She works at Nana Plaza. Some of those bars are really big, have 300 staff, a lot of Iranians and Arabs go there. She's a very successful ladyboy, she's in great shape, both her looks and her body, not an ounce of fat, a really high energy level. But I see her as a highly tuned predator. When I see her working on an Arab, a guy who left his robe in the hotel closet and is now out in his polyester shirt and gold chains, it's like a Discovery Channel documentary on the Serengeti Plain in Africa. Her eyes are lit up, her attention is 100% tuned to her prey -- her muscles are trembling, ready to spring onto this well-fed, juicy, plump, tasty, single Islamic male. I see them back in his hotel room at the Grace Hotel. I see her pouncing, ripping open the Islamic male -- he has no idea of how powerful and violent this predator is, he'll stand no chance. In some sense, she'll rip him to shreds, and return to the bar with his wallet, triumphant.

Sexy Bar - Chris Coles
TTO: What about your painting, "Sexy Bar"?

COLES: That's meant to be very ironic. It's blindingly bright, so your eyes practically hurt -- it's an unfortunately slow night with nothing remotely sexy. The girls are making a half-hearted attempt to lure a customer, a wandering ladyboy is half bored, there's no use bothering. Three guys are just talking to each other. It's the contrast between the huge visual effort, and the total boredom in front of it. They've seen it all and it no longer works.

Contrast that with an Iranian on his first night out on Walking Street in Pattaya. I try to walk right next to these guys, catch their reactions. He's straight from Teheran, visually over-stimulated, it's like a nuclear bomb has gone off inside his head. His brain is spinning, he's being hit with 50 music tracks, there are thousands of girls, boys, ladyboys, lights, signs blinking -- he's so overloaded visually and auditorially that his mind is like an overloaded computer, his critical faculties have totally stopped -- which makes him a great customer. And with all the ATM's and chemists/pharmacies actually right on Walking Street, and they're not selling Strepsils.....

I'm painting it (Walking Street) now, it's my primary focus, it's the peak of nightlife genius. It's much like a Thai Spirit House, it has all the elements -- offerings, superstitions, figures, non rational arguments. For an artist, Walking Street is like standing next to Niagara Falls.

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn Lost in the Bangkok Night

Dominique Strauss-Kahn Lost in the Bangkok Night - Chris Coles
In Bangkok for some IMF meetings, late at night, Dominique Strauss-Kahn wanders out of the cocoon of his 5 Star hotel and insulated world, into the immensity of the Bangkok Night, lost and alone, wondering where and how and why.....

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Canadian Lawyer in the Bangkok Night...

Canadian Lawyer in the Bangkok Night
Canada is a country of reason, rules, order...........fairness, transparency, rights are assumed and valued........while the Bangkok Night's an opposite universe.......with everything that's missing in Canada available in spades.......the question for the Canadian lawyer is, what to do.......

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mamasan at Champs Elysee Club Bangkok...

Mamasan at Champs Elysees Club
Champs Elysees Club is one of the top "Executive Clubs" in the Bangkok Night, serving millionaires and billionaires from Thailand, Asia and the world........the girls are stunning, usually very very white, sometimes tall, almost always slim......some from Thailand's top universities, some fashion models, a few film stars down on their luck...hundreds of girls, hundreds of plush rooms, thousands of clients, millions of dollars.......and at the center of the show a tough no-bullshit Mamasan who keeps the whole machine humming...........

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Buddha Visiting Hat Yai in the Year 2554

Buddha Visiting Hat Yai in the Year 2554
In Year 2554, Buddha visits Thailand to see the result of his lifelong work, the cause & effect, the relation between good intention, mindfulness and result.

After several evenings in the Bangkok Night & then a weekend on Walking Street in Pattaya, Buddha's discouraged but not disheartened & he heads down to Hat Yai, in Thailand's Deep South near the border with Malaysia....a city of 150,000 Buddhists & Muslims with 40,000 hotel rooms, 10,000 bars, thousands of rentboys, 4 ladyboy revues & tens of thousands of young females from every district of Thailand dressed in very skimpy costumes.

From his room at the Pink Lady Hotel, he watches as tens of thousands of Malaysians arrive for a weekend of drinking & partying.......and, with a quiet sigh, accepts that his work in Thailand has only just begun.....

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