Artist Chris Coles focuses on the bright lights and dark pulse of Bangkok's infamous nightlife
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the appeal of places or things that locals can be blind to. For Chris Coles, an American artist who has lived in Bangkok on and off for more than a decade, the urban jungle is the source of his inspiration.
Coles worked in the movie business for a quarter of a century and travelled widely before buying a condo in Bangkok in the late ’90s. He says his time in the film industry, with set designers such as Stuart Craig and filmmakers like Roger Deakins, heightened his appreciation and awareness of the sights he encountered in Southeast Asia.
“It was a real eye-opener the first time coming here – visually dense and the energy here. I got really interested in modern Asia. For a Westerner, it’s such a different universe.”
Most farang, he says, are not used to all the motion and density they initially encounter in the Thai capital. “Thais are quite relaxed and at ease in a lot of dense visual information – holes in the sidewalk, motorcycles, soi dogs, etc – but it overloads your senses. Most Westerners are not used to that in the first year here.”
For Coles, whose mother was an artist, just having a meal or a drink in some notorious nightlife areas can be a rich visual feast. “For an artist, it’s like sitting next to Niagara Falls.”
He talks about art with passion. He is big on the German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, who painted scenes in Berlin in the 1920s, and sees similarities to modern-day Bangkok, which he rates as “the real capital of Southeast Asia” – a city of multiple cultural streams, great infrastructure, and “tremendous visual intensity”.
Coles uses colour with similar boldness – bright, vivid images, with characters and scenes from “the noir side of the Bangkok night”.
His book, “Navigating the Bangkok Noir”, published last year by Marshall Cavendish, portrays the diverse underbelly of life that makes the capital so spicy and colourful.
He makes it sound like a hot tom yum of all the things conservative locals would stir clear of – as his book says: “bargirls, punters, ladyboys, rentboys, and the assorted cast of thugs, scammers, traffickers, dealers, perverts, hitmen and the endless stream of fugitives from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America, not to mention Thailand itself”.
Coles grew up in a fishing village in Maine on the US Atlantic coast. At 17 he caught a bus to Los Angeles on the West Coast and worked in a Mexican restaurant. The following year he was on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. Shortly after that he was in the West Australian outback, before returning to the US to study literature at Brown University. He journeyed around Kenya before travelling to London, teaching, and then taking a course at Britain’s national film school.
In the late ’70s he got into the movie business, working as a production manager on the Superman movies with Christopher Reeve.
By 1995, when he came to Phang Nga to work on “Cutthroat Island”, he was a studio executive. Directed by Renny Harlin, the movie starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine was the biggest bomb in box-office history, but it got him to Thailand.
With less interest in films, and his daughter then at university, he was free to pursue his interest in art and live in Thailand.
Coles graduated from sketching to painting after doing art courses at the Otis School in Los Angeles in 2002. He now paints about eight hours a day at a studio off lower Sukhumvit Road.
“A lot of what I’m doing is coming out of the German expressionist style and out of Nolde,” he says. “I paint all day, have lunch or dinner on the street or at a food court, and maybe go to the gym. At 10pm I’m finished and wander around for a couple of hours. I might go to Saphan Taksin, Sukhumvit, Ekamai or get the Skytrain somewhere.”
What amazes him is the variety of people one can meet – and paint – here. He talks of sitting and deconstructing a scene while having a bowl of noodles on the sidewalk.
When painting, he likes to use strange lighting and will often focus on a person’s face.
“I’m interested in what the face hides that’s within, and how the same person in the day, during the Bangkok night suddenly they’re something else – like someone set them on fire.”
MEET THE MAN
Coles will feature new works in a show at the Foreign Correspondents Club, opening on Friday at 7pm.
Philip Cornwel-Smith, the author of “Very Thai”, will give a short introductory talk about how Bangkok’s nightlife has been an inspiration for many artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians.