Chris Coles: Navigating the Bangkok Noir (April 20, 2008)
“Sexy Bar” by Chris Coles
“I Cover the Waterfront” was Max Miller’s 1932 book about his gritty turn as a docklands reporter for the San Diego Sun. The title told you that nothing but trouble was ahead. Chris Coles covers the Bangkok waterfront, though not (yet) its awful Klong Toei Port. His beat is the expatriate neon triangle — Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza and Patpong Road — where the wildlife gathers at the waterholes in the cool of the night.
I used to haunt those places, but after awhile it got to be like that scene in “Chinatown” where Jack Nicholson has had pretty much enough of banging his head against walls trying to make sense of things and Joe Mantell tells him, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
“Isan Nightclub Singer”
Coles, originally from Maine, formerly a passenger aboard Swahili trading dhows among Africa’s Bajuni Islands, once of Australia and Greenland, now bounds between Bangkok and LA, and his shield against the psychic ravages that the Big Mango’s nightlife imposes is being able to paint it up in all the lurid colours it deserves. Art as a defence mechanism is not unknown.
Chris got in touch with me about the January Dali House post “Politics and the profanity of disbelief”, regarding Warthit Sembut and Anupong Chanthorn’s run-ins with Thailand’s guardians of the moral fibre.
“There are so many creative people in Thailand and sometimes they just get stifled by the Ministry of Culture types,” Chris wrote. ” Too many pretty paintings of the countryside, passive Buddhas and pale imitations of modern concept art and not enough paintings like the ones of the monks with a real edge and power.”
Chris Coles’ paintings are not (usually) pretty. He proudly waves the expressionist flag that first appeared over the mounds of bloody corpses in World War I, when German artists reacted in horror to the efficiency of their own country’s fighting machine and laid their emotions out on canvas. The impressionists could have their damned sunlight and keep on living in a dream. This was realism, scarred and scared and howling.
I love the way Chris stays current. He emailed me the picture on the left above, saying he’d been at the trendy upscale bar Bed Supperclub, “and who should I see wander in but Elliot Spitzer”. On his website I found “Russian Arms Trafficker in Bangkok”, above right, no doubt the rocket-grenade vendor who was busted by the Thai cops in March.
I didn’t realise how well the Bangkok night lent itself to expressionism, actually, but Chris — who readily acknowledges his debt to the Berlin expressionists, as well as Bosch, Gauguin, Braque, Bacon, Degas, Cezanne and Los Angeles Chicano Glugio “Gronk” Nicondra — feeds off its colours, faces and “visual surprises”. “It is the modern equivalent of Berlin in the 1910-20s, Paris 1890-1910,” he emailed me.
“Almost a hundred years later, the insight and brilliance of the expressionist vision lives on,” he says on his website, “true to the ongoing struggle and clash of human existence on a planet in constant and violent transformation, expressed in strong colours and distorted lines, swirling patterns, allowing us a glimpse into the true nature of our lives and our world as they actually are, not as we would wish them to be.”
Chris doesn’t want outsiders to get the impression, though, that the city is mere sleaze and paintings of it just an album of police mugshots. He cites Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso and examples of artists who found the aesthetic beauty in the night. The latter’s 1900 “Le Moulin de la Galette” (detail here), is “full of prostitutes and johns, which reminds me of CM2 Club”, says Chris, referring to a local dance bar.
The Bangkok night, he avows, isn’t “only a sordid money-machine servicing the low-end of humanity”, but “an authentic and unique setting in the ongoing cultural history of mankind”. I think that stretches the point thin — life in any big city eventually turns from shiny jade to just plain jaded — but the gist of it stands.
That there were no painters giving the Bangkok barscape the expressionist treatment occurred to Chris while he was casually sketching portraits of the night creatures. He’d washed ashore in Thailand when Geena Davis was making her pirate movie “Cutthroat Island” in Phuket. Chris had been working as a production manager and line producer on various films, including a couple of my long-time favourites, “Chaplin” and “The Road to Wellville”.
“Welcome to Thailand Soi Dog”. Compare with Chatchai Puipia’s “Siamese Smile”. Discuss.
Thailand opened the art door, and he set himself up on Sukhumvit Road in the Soi 20s. He’s done thousands of paintings since, many of which are being collated in a series of books to be published “in another year or two”, categorised according his own designated sub-genres, like Bangkok Night, Bangkok Neon, Bangkok Ladyboy and Bangkok Soi Dog. And Chris tells me he’s hoping for a gallery show in Bangkok next autumn.
He had shows in New York and Santa Monica in 2005 and 2006, Santa Monica Beach providing its own subject matter for a swath of “softer” paintings that range to flowers and animals and borderline-abstract Intimate Landscapes. There’s also a Decadent Berlin category, for which Chris allows himself to be possessed by “the reincarnated spirit of the great German expressionist Emil Nolde”, when he becomes Kris Kolde.
Bangkok Noir is another of his sub-genres, but it tends to predominate in Chris’ work. This is where he depicts “a chaotic, edgy noir world of colliding intention and misplaced desire, lives out of balance, male-female compulsion, alienation and disassociation”.
Bangkok, he says, is “an almost perfect setting for noir fiction, films, music and paintings”, and he lists the local expatriate writers who’ve capitalised on the fact — Christopher Moore, Jake Needham, Stephen Leather and John Burdett — and the Thai filmmakers the Pang brothers and Smith Timsawit.
“Due to relatively lax visa requirements, almost anyone with the money and air ticket can show up and stay for at least a month if not a lifetime. As a result, Bangkok attracts various criminals, low-lifes, scam artists and fugitives from every country on earth.”
In their own ways, and with varying degrees of success, the local expatriate writers and artists portray the Nigerian heroin, Indian money-laundering, Yakuza meth, Russian flesh traders, Burmese generals and Chinese swindlers, “not to speak of the Thai police, military and Thailand’s own homegrown thugs and godfathers”.
Bangkok Noir helped get Chris an entry on Wikipedia, but the page has since fallen victim to the cybercyclopaedia’s “not-famous-enough” purge, although his friend and neighbour Christopher Moore remains, thanks to his string of pop novels and the fresh interest in them from Keanu Reeves.
The filmmaker in Chris has created musical videos of all of his painting series, from Patpong Portraits to One Night in Bangkok to Bangkok Boys Town to Landscapes, and you can see them both on his YouTube channel and Yahoo Videos page. Below is the Bangkok Nights video.