Friday, May 20, 2011

"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 had departed, and been replaced by a predominantly ex-pat crowd of notables there to see Coles' work -- like writer Christopher G. Moore, who wrote the intro to Coles' book, and two of whose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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