Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Album of Expressionist Art: ‘Navigating the Bangkok Noir’ as Reviewed by Voicu Mihnea Simandan


Many people have asked me how it was like to grow up in the Eastern Block, behind the Iron Curtain. I told all of them that, as a kid, life was good. I mean, yes, food ratios, lack of entertainment on TV, and the general grimness of people on the street become obvious issues once we were exposed to the “opulence” of the West. But, until 1989, I didn’t know that anything better existed.

Probably one of the greatest achievements of the Communist regime in Romania was that, because there was nothing else to do, people read and practiced sports. It is true that we didn’t have access to the “subversive” literature of the West, but my father’s library was full of books and art albums, everything from Dostoevsky to van Gogh.

This “bad habit” of reading books and flicking through art album stayed with me until today. It was thus a great pleasure when Chris Coles’s album of expressionist art Navigating the Bangkok Noir arrived in my mail. Published by Marshall Cavendish in 2011, the album comprises of one hundred close-ups of the Bangkok nightlife. All of them are watercolours on paper and were created by the artist between 2004 and 2007.

Chris Coles is an artist and filmmaker who spends his creative time between two cities of angles: Los Angeles and Bangkok. For the people of Bangkok, Chris Coles’s work represents the faces of the good, the bad, and the unfortunate who negotiate on a daily basis a living in a Bangkok different than the one usually advertised on the Tourist Authority of Thailand brochures. It is the Bangkok of the red light districts. It is the Bangkok Noir.

The album couldn’t have had a better introduction than the one signed by Christopher G. Moore, another noir champion stationed in Bangkok. In The Bangkok Noir Movement, the essay that opens Coles’s album, Moore looks at what noir means for us, the residents of Bangkok, and places the artist’s paintings in its context: “modern pop art with contemporary pulp story telling.”

The vignettes Chris Coles wrote to accompany each of his noir paintings take us deeper into the darkness of a Bangkok I know very little of. The protagonists of Chris’s paintings are people he met or observed in various “hot” locations, from clubs mostly frequented by old timers to the tourist orientated ones on Soi Cowboy. A special place among his “subjects” are the ladies of the night, most of them dancing in brief clothing at the pole or waiting their first (or last) customer of the day.

My two favourite paintings are “Washington Square Girl,” the portrait of a “working” girl whose harsh life back home in the village just seems to jump out of the picture; and “Wild and Crazy Guy,” the epitomizing image of your run-of-the-mill tourist who, back home leads a safe and socially acceptable life, but once he lands in Bangkok, he is “ready to hunt large animals with a club and drag women back to his cave.”

With the recent publication of Bangkok Noir, a collection of dark short stories edited by Christopher G. Moore, plus Navigating the Bangkok Noir, which is already available in major bookstores throughout Thailand, the noir movement has taken a strong foothold in this “Land of Smiles” where according to some, everything is wonderful and people are always smiling. Well, thanks to Chris Coles’s acute eye and artistic talent, we now know for sure that behind all the glitter and flashy lights, there’s a human drama which, on most occasions, we like to ignore or even forget it exists.

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