Friday, April 01, 2011

BKK 101 Magazine's Steven Pettifor interviews Chris Coles

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BKK 101 Magazine's Steven Pettifor interviews Chris Coles about his April Show at Koi Gallery in Bangkok, his new book of paintings titled NAVIGATING THE BANGKOK NOIR, and how he puts together his paintings from the Bangkok Night.

by Steven Pettifor - BKK 101 Magazine - April 2011

Known among Bangkok’s expat clique for his expressive depictions of the capital’s adult nightlife, Thailand-based American painter Chris Coles has paired up with Thai artist Anita Suputipong for his latest exhibition at Koi Art Gallery.

Celebrating the recent publication of his new book Navigating the Bangkok Noir, Coles’ raw vividness contrasts with Anita’s more tempered evocations of life in the metropolis.

Q: Bangkok's nightlife has been referenced in many books, films, and artworks. What fresh perspective do you bring to such a milieu?

Many books, films & artworks already out there that make use of Bangkok’s nightlife and either present it in a “glamorous” way or an “erotic/pleasure palace” way. They sort of go along with a lot of popular clichés and commonly accepted notions about the scene.

A number of my paintings from the world of Bangkok’s nightlife, are more portraits of the people inhabiting the “scene” rather than the “scene” itself. In these portraits, using clashing colors, distortion, an expressionist style of presentation, I try to capture not only the person’s surface and “face” but also what’s going on inside. For instance, while they might be “smiling” & “looking happy” on the surface, inside they are not “smiling” and, in fact, not “happy”.

In the paintings of actual scenes from the Bangkok nightlife, the bars, restaurants, discos, music/KTV places, etc., I also try to get beneath the surface presentation, the “nightlife/show business” illusion that has been ingeniously and carefully constructed and which serves as a complex, powerful marketing platform with which to attract, sell to and ensnare the “customer” in order to maintain the Bangkok nightlife’s enormous revenue flow.

I deconstruct the lighting, atmosphere, how the scene is populated/staffed, the use of intense colors, patterns, mirrors, distortion and disorientation. I try to show the psychological and economic relationships that are being conjured up, the alienation, the confusion, the various human deficits that are being met, the near overwhelming flow of sensory information and the human struggles that are present and in play. Also, what it “feels like” to actually be there, inside, “backstage”, how the experience of being there is processed and “perceived”.

Despite Thailand being known as the “Land of Smiles” and almost all the Thailand tourist guidebooks/photobooks being filled with pretty images of Thai people smiling, in my nightlife paintings, there is almost no one who is actually smiling.

Q: Your depictions of Bangkok nightlife draw parallels to Paris in the late 19th century by artists such as Lautrec or Degas. Where do you see similarities and differences?

I very much draw inspiration from the French Fauvist & German Expressionist painters who used non-realistic and saturated clashing colors as well as a distorted unrealistic style in portraying the people and settings of Paris nightlife circa 1900 & Berlin nightlife in the 1920’s.

Q: How do you capture your subjects, through sketches, photographs, or from memory?

A lot of what I do is spend hours very careful observing both the people and settings in the Bangkok night.

Some bars/scenes might have over 3000 lighting sources of all kinds of colors, lots of them moving or constantly changing tone and intensity, often multiplied by static and moving mirrors. To understand the lighting and colors and how they’re working might take me several hours of intense visual observation and mental cataloguing. Gradually, I’ve developed an intuitive knowledge of the lighting and color effects which I use in almost all of my paintings.

There might be several hundred people present, performers, staff, customers and bystanders, all of them in a constant state of movement, an endlessly changing flow of interaction and relationships, each dressed in a certain way, each lit by the various moving light sources, each going through a series of actions, endlessly adapting and adjusting their attitude and demeanour. I listen to many conversations, sometimes I even ask questions, for instance, why something is being done in a certain way or what is someone trying to do.

The end result of all this observation is the formation of my ideas and vision, which is basically the Bangkok Nightlife scene as a sort of darwinistic, ferocious world full of struggle, alienation, tragedy, with occasional glimpses of beauty, hope and redemption.

Then, I go to work as a kind of visual scavenger/garbage collector, looking for possible elements and images which I can use to convey my vision.

I basically don’t discriminate or care where I get the visual bits and pieces, they come from my entire visual world, from tv, trash cans, a piece of paper off the street, memories false and real, fuzzy camera phone reference snaps, other painters, for instance some of the painters of Berlin nightlife in the 1920’s or the French painters of Paris nightlife circa 1900, sometimes I do sketches, sometimes I just make it all up, sometimes I work from collages, and sometimes a combination of all of the above.

Q: Your art could be read as exoticising Thailand.

I try to avoid completely “orientalising/exoticising” the Bangkok night scene and the Thai and Asian people who inhabit it. There is no “Oriental Gong” or “Fu Manchu” or “Inscrutable Asian” or “Thai Air Smiling/Wai-ing Stewardess”. The various people are presented as fully-dimensional and complex human beings who are full of hope, struggle, dreams and suffering, not as “glamorized objects” or “passive/submissives” or even as “victims”

Q: In what way do your paintings move beyond the typical sex industry laden associations of Bangkok nightlife?

I think my paintings go far beyond the typical Bangkok sex business clichés. The paintings de-construct the Bangkok nightlife/sex industry. They pull/tear/rip the nightlife machine/factory apart and reveal the inner mechanics and personalities. My paintings do not “glamorize” or “eroticize” the nightlife. In fact, someone once pointed out to me that there is a very strong Buddhist message underlying most of my paintings of the Bangkok nightlife and that is:

“Desire is an illusion…….”

In my paintings I try to show what the elements are that go into creating and maintaining this very large and well-developed “illusion” or spectacle, the very high level of skill that goes into its marketing and its power.

Q: Have you exhausted the capital’s nightlife as a subject yet?

The Bangkok nightlife industry/scene is gigantic, employing directly and indirectly hundreds of thousands of people at all its different levels. It’s a significant percentage not only of Bangkok’s economic structure but of the entire Thailand economic output. It is full of color, human drama, interesting personalities and there is an infinity of stuff to paint.

But sometimes, I just can’t take anymore psychologically and physically and I stop.

For instance, I want to do a series of paintings based around the “Super Noir Arabs/Africans-in-Bangkok” scene which is centered around Sukhumvit Soi 3 and the Grace Hotel. I’ve spent many hours in that area on Friday and Saturday nights between midnight and 3AM when the area hits its peak of activity and crowds. There are so many strong colors, so many weird people, so much struggle, suffering, alienation. It is ripe fruit waiting to be plucked and painted.

But even for me, the “Bangkok Noir artist”, it is just too much Noir, too hopeless, too nihilistic, too lacking in any element of “entertainment” or “fun”, that I find myself just wanting to go home, take a really long hot shower and go to sleep.

Q: What will be your next focus?

I’ve been working a series of Noir type paintings set in Singapore which at first seems to be an unlikely place to find much “Noir” but once you dig past the surface version of Singapore, you discover there is a lot more there than just the shiny hi-rises and 5-star shopping malls. To me at least, it seems a much more “lonely” city than Bangkok, so the style of the paintings is less “Berlin 1920’s” and more sort of in the Edward Hopper direction. And color palette is more muted.

As a result of my last show being held at Liam’s Gallery in Pattaya, I spent some time there and was very surprised at Pattaya’s unexpected diversity and dramatic expansion, especially the tens of thousands of Russians, Iranians, Gulf State Arabs, South Asians and tourists from China. On a typical Friday or Saturday night, Walking Street has100,000 visitors and they are from almost every country on earth, all income levels and in unexpected social groupings.

For instance, a Russian family of four, Mom, Dad and two young children, having their photo taken standing next to a six foot tall Thai ladyboy. A tour group of female high school teachers from Chengdu, wide-eyed and in wonder at the ongoing Walking Street circus. A bunch of middle-class families from India, looking for a seafood restaurant amidst the chaos. Fierce looking Gulf State Arab Wahabis parading down Walking Street with their newly-acquired Thai girlfriends. Not to speak of the newest trend, ladyboys dressed up in Burqas.

Great neon, chaotic mixing of colors, music, situations. Plenty of raw visual stuff, more than enough for only one artist in one lifetime. So I’ve been doing mainly portraits of the different types of people who are wandering around rather than wider view paintings of the “scene”.

I’ve started researching/prepping for a series of Noir paintings to be set in Phnom Penh which is a very different city than Bangkok with Khmers/Cambodians very different than Thais. Different color palette, feel, atmosphere, a place in the midst of very rapid change with a lot of odd juxtapositions, interesting locations, an edgy quality, a lot of light and darkness.

I am also working on my 2nd book to follow the 1st one that is being launched on April 1st in Bangkok (NAVIGATING THE BANGKOK NOIR – Marshall Cavendish Singapore) and I will also keep working on my series of expressionist style flower paintings and some paintings set on the coast of Maine where I’m originally from and where I spend a few months every year.

Colour of Day/Colour of Night, Apr 1 – 30
Koi Art Gallery Bangkok,
43/12 Soi Sukhumvit 31 Sawaddee |
02-662-3218 |

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