Harpswell artist Chris Coles paints his picture of Bangkok
Capturing a scene at once exotic and volatile, it’s hard to identify the point at which Harpswell artist Chris Coles’s paintings of the Bangkok nightlife veer from reality to expressionism.
With red, yellow or orange eyes shining out from green, red or blue skin, Coles’s subjects are club owners, sex workers, expatriates, tourists, ladyboys — characters of a nightlife that draws nearly 27 million tourists a year, and approximately 2 million sex workers.
“As an expressionist artist, I’m not really trying to get the surface reality,” said Coles, who considers himself part of a Bangkok Noir movement, “but what’s radiating out from inside.”
Describing his work as “gritty” and “disturbing,” Coles’s extreme use of color and form distortion are informed by the frenetic energy of the scene he says is “fun for the customers, but extremely damaging to the people delivering the services.”
Coles was raised in Maine and graduated from Brunswick High School before earning his undergraduate degree from Brown University. Formerly a film producer in Los Angeles for 25 years, he started traveling around Southeast Asia while working as a studio producer for the 1995 film Cutthroat Island, starring Geena Davis.
“At that time, it was one of the largest budget films ever made,” said Coles. “It was a stupid pirate movie and it bankrupted the studio basically, but we were based in Thailand and I got to see Asia.
“After that I said, ‘You know, the money is good but I can’t spend my whole life making incredibly stupid films,’” he added.
Recently returned from Thailand — just days after the country’s military chief announced a coup d’etat — Coles said he splits his time between his tranquil Harpswell home and Southeast Asia, and the space is what gives him time to rebalance and maintain perspective.
“There’s a social aspect to the work I do as well; I have a very negative view of the clubs and nightlife,” he said. “Whereas a lot of the girls in bars might be quite pretty, they’re ugly in my paintings a lot of the time, but I’ll give them a copy and they get it right away.
“They don’t say ‘Why are you using wacky colors?’ They’ll say, ‘That’s how I feel; that’s exactly how I feel,” said Coles. “They love these paintings, the people who work in these bars.”
Coles’s premiere exhibition was in Los Angeles in 2005. Since then his work has also been displayed in New York, various locations in Thailand and once in Harpswell. He has been interviewed by several of Thailand’s news outlets, culture magazines and Thai TV.
While many of the Bangkok noir subjects appreciate Coles’s work, Thailand’s elite and Coles’s fellow Mainers have had mixed reactions.
“The people who get upset about my paintings in Thailand are the richest Thais — they say it’s terrible for me to present Thailand in that way,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Well, that’s the way it is, if you don’t like it, shut it down.’”
But prostitution is big business in Thailand. Documentation of the industry is scant, but one Australian news agency reported in 2003 that the industry was worth $4.3 billion. The billionaires benefiting from the nightlife aren’t about to allow a sea change, said Coles.
“Right now the biggest, most famous nightclub in Bangkok has three of my paintings, and three or four others have my paintings,” he said, “so the world I paint has become a part of the world I paint.
“In their view, I’m giving them voice, they have sixth grade education,” Coles added. “They don’t write, they hardly read. I’m giving voice to their struggle.”
In Maine, Coles said, the reception varies with the observer.
“The average consumer of Maine art that goes to galleries in Maine — they want scenery. They want sunsets, they want lobster fisherman, something nice to put up in their house,” said Coles. “They don’t want something gritty.”
To give his paintings context, Coles writes vignettes to accompany each of them — and he has spent years, in some cases, observing his subjects.
“The rural incomes in Thailand are about $1,000 a year,” said Coles, “and Thailand has one of the highest teenage birth rates in the world.”
It is common, Coles said, for young women in rural areas to have one or two children before the age of 20, and to be solely financially responsible for their children and for aging parents who are no longer able to work.
“There’s no social security or safety net,” said Coles, “so you may have one daughter supporting five people: Two babies, two parents and herself — the incentive to go to Bangkok, in terms of financial obligations, is huge.”
A factory worker may make $200 a month, said Coles, but a sex worker can earn $2,000 a month. A highend prostitute can make $5,000 a month, more than the average doctor’s salary.
“They have a sixth grade education, most of them, so they have no education or skills,” said Coles. “When they show up they’re shockingly fresh and nice, but there’s a huge casualty rate and gradually they disintegrate.”
Working every night until 3 or 4 a.m., the pervasive drug use, health risks and alcohol consumption endemic to the environment they work in takes its toll, said Coles.
“Gradually it just wears them down — it’s like a machine — it just wears them down,” he said. “But often when they start, you just can’t believe they’re even working there.”
While maybe not the kind of work “someone from Harpswell with a nice home may want to hang on their walls,” said Coles, his paintings have captured the interest of collectors in Asia, North America and Europe, including one of Thailand’s former prime ministers and a member of the royal family.
Coles is also hoping to have his first European exhibition premiere this fall in Amsterdam. He is currently working on a series of paintings of Pattaya, a beach resort visited by millions of Russian, Iranian and Arab tourists, among others.
“They’re very tuned into this kind of painting there, they don’t want something sentimental, warm, nice and soft,” said Coles. “They want something that wakes you up and makes you think.
“Some people get really upset that I do portraits of, they say, ‘That’s disgusting — you made me look like a monster,’ said Coles. “Well, maybe they are. I paint what I see.”
The world he sees is in transition, “moving at the speed of light from a developing to first world country,” Coles said, and the temptations it offers too often lure in those who try to record its existence as it changes before their eyes.
“No one else is really doing this — other artists have tried to do it, but they get caught up in it,” said Coles. “Only a kid from the coast of Maine could get near this stuff without just getting vaporized.”