Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Off-beat Review of Navigating the Bangkok Noir by Biscotti

Chris Coles’ Paintings of Bangkok’s Working Girls

While surfing around the net recently I came across the paintings of an American born artist who has dedicated considerable time (and probably considerable dollars) to documenting the nightlife at Bangkok’s numerous Go-Go bars, strip clubs, pick up joints and hostess bars. And the documentations he produces are in the form of colourfully grotesque, expressionist paintings. His work is not to all tastes (I think they’re mostly hideous) but on his blog he writes short explanatory paragraphs to accompany each painting, and his writing is brilliant. Sometimes pithy, almost always poignant, his observations truly bring the paintings to life.

Rainbow 2 Bar
 Rainbow Two Bar, watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inch
Anyone not familiar with Expressionism should be forewarned: the paintings are SUPPOSED to look ugly. Expressionism is an artistic style that grew out of the European experience immediately following the unbelievable slaughter of the First World War. The artist’s world is now viewed as a harsh, edgy, dangerous place, filled with bad intentions and alienation. The Expressionists often painted their vision with dark lines and clashing colors, rather than the soft images and harmonious tones (like the Impressionists who preceded them). Famous Expressionists include George Grosz, Oscar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Otto Dix. OK, now that the art lesson is over, time to look at some paintings.

Late Night Rainbow
Late Night Rainbow A-Go-Go, watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inch
The painting above is meant to portray the 1am blur of mild insanity that can be witnessed almost any evening at the Rainbow A-Go-Go bar in Bangkok’s ultra-sleazy Nana Plaza entertainment district. And truthfully, it captures the scene pretty well. “Too much beer, too much flesh and too many expats out of control” says the artist on his website.

Expat Hangout
Expat Hangout, watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inch
This painting, no bigger than a postcard, depicts the mundane side of almost any bar on Bangkok’s garishly seedy Soi Cowboy. A mix of lust and languor, or, as the artist so amusingly writes on his blog: “Certain Soi Cowboy bars are hangouts for retired expats, old hands in Bangkok, where they go to say hello to their friends. The girls are just there, in the background, available or not – no one cares. Where’s so and so? I just got back from the States, it ain’t the same. When’s your next visa run? I was over in Saigon last week. You should go over and take a look. If they lived in Arizona or Florida, they would all be playing golf.”

Patpong Girl
Patpong Girl, watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inch
The crude but compelling painting above is a great “capture the moment” slice of life in the night of pretty much any go-go dancer working in Bangkok’s Patpong red light district. And the angle is familiar to anyone who has sat in the front row watching these girls as they gyrate onstage in their high heels and skimpy bikinis (yes, guilty as charged). The artist on his blog imagines the numbers of tourists that she’s scene in her brief 2-years working as a dancer. “… about a hundred tourists a night, thirty-five thousand a year, seventy thousand in all, from Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Japan, Korea and the USA.”

Number 26
Number 26, watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inch
Although I haven’t seen any other painters depicting Bangkok’s “ladies of the night”, the tradition of artists using prostitutes as models has a long history. Toulouse-Lautrec, the famous French Post-Impressionist, purposely sought out prostitutes and cabaret performers as models, arguing that they provided him with the natural, unconstrained movement he preferred. I’m sure artist Chris Coles (whom I’ve never met) also finds the attitudes and body language of Bangkok’s good time girls to be a big part of his inspiration. But he also seeks to depict the “world” these girls inhabit.

Quiet Night
Quiet Night, water color on paper, 18 x 24 inch
The painting above, which is as hilarious as it is disturbing, has a great bit of poetry to go with it on the artist’s website. It describes perfectly the feeling one experiences after being in Bangkok too long – when the heat and the repetition begins to wear you down a bit: “A quiet night in April, Bangkok’s hottest month. Outside, even at midnight, it’s a hundred degrees and a hundred percent humidity. Inside the bar, the A/C is on full blast, the beer cold and everybody’s happy to go through the motions, thankful for the escape.”

Washington Square Girl
Washington Square Girl, watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inch
As I spent time online finding out more about Chris Coles, I discovered that he has packaged his collection of paintings into a book, entitled Navigating the Bangkok Noir (available online and at a few select bookstores in Bangkok, Singapore, and, perhaps not surprisingly, France). I haven’t seen his book here, but I hope it includes the insightful words he uses on his website. His thoughts behind Washington Square Girl (above) are actually quite poetic and moving: “Sometimes she sits the whole day without any clients or drinks. She thinks about her life as a little girl, in a house on stilts, taking care of the chickens and water buffalo. Her mother worked from dawn ‘til dusk, taught her kids to smile and sing, no matter how hard their life. At age 12, she finished school and joined her father in the rice fields. Before she was 18, she had two babies. Her boyfriend ran away. The kids are teenagers now, living in the house on stilts. Someday, they will come to Bangkok too.”

Lek at Pretty Lady
Lek at Pretty Lady, watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inch
I was also surprised to find out that Coles, who divides his time between Bangkok and the USA (Los Angeles and Maine), has had exhibitions in New York, L.A., and even some prestigious galleries right here in Bangkok. He’s also had a pretty interesting life, working around the world in some very exotic locales. His paintings may not suit every taste, but art is where you find it, right? And if nothing else, his wry observations elevate the material to a universal level. Take for instance this blurb, which accompanies the painting above. It even touches on a bit of Buddhist philosophy: “Almost thirty, Lek’s body is still slender and supple. But she has seen too much, known too many men, danced too many nights. Her only desire is to go back to her hometown, take care of her ten year old son and live out the rest of this life in quiet, hoping the next cycle will be better.”

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