The dark art of Chris Coles: A bleaker, seedier side of Bangkok life
“Bangkok Noir” has become something of a buzzword in recent months, although more cynical minds might deduce that it’s little more than an attempt to spin the work of local crime writers such as Christopher G. Moore and John Burdett into an authentic genre, bracketing their books with the likes of James Ellroy or even Raymond Chandler and hoping a little of the critical credibility rubs off.
Artist Chris Coles is happy to be seen as part of the movement, to the extent that his new book of his paintings is called “Navigating the Bangkok Noir.” (See the above gallery for a small sample.)
In his hands, the Bangkok night becomes “a Darwinistic and brutal stage on which humans from all over the planet, rich and poor, dark and white, tall and short, fat and slim, civilized and uncouth, intelligent and incredibly dumb, come together to mingle, interact, devour, be devoured, stalk prey and to be stalked by predators.”
It’s rather different from the Land of Smiles mythology peddled by the government and the tourist authorities -- the mythology that holds topless Songkran dancers to be completely antithetical to Thai culture and morality – and indeed from the majority of Bangkok-based artists.
For a real exercise in contrasts, check out his exhibition at the Koi Gallery on Sukhumwit 31, which hangs his works alongside the pastoral confections of Anita Suputipong.
But Coles’s work is also distinct from that of Christopher Moore and his fellow writers, who are forced by their chosen genre to tie the atmosphere down to a plot, to add a little action and danger to their depictions of Krung Thep at night. The results sometimes feel as if they’ve been designed to flatter the white-knight fantasies of their male, farang readers, for whom real life can still be a bit mundane, even in this city.
Moore writes the foreword to Coles’s book, and compares the painter to Toulouse-Lautrec, but this misses the mark a little. Toulouse-Lautrec’s pictures of prostitutes were tender observations that focused on the women’s off-duty moments -- sleeping, bathing, dreaming.
Coles is an Expressionist, though; his bargirls are in the tradition of the underweight, glassy-eyed Viennese hookers immortalized by Egon Schiele. Moreover, his combination of garish colors and thick black lines suggests the styles of Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall, both of whom were influenced by stained-glass windows in places of worship.
In his hands the damaged denizens of Bangkok’s nightlife achieve a transcendent aura, the profane becoming sacred.
Behind the sad, garish smiles
That said, Coles doesn’t impose an explicit narrative or moral on his images of Bangkok nightlife. What he sets out to do is “to accept and understand that as humans, even in the year 2011, we still harbor some very primitive, reptile-like qualities that lie not too far beneath our modern and ‘civilized’ exterior surface.”
Each image stands alone, a single event in a single night, take it or leave it. His deadpan annotations put a few names to faces, a little context for those who might not be au fait with Nana or Cowboy, but stops short of fleshing out a full biography for these damaged creatures.
He doesn’t idealize or idolize the bargirls, but is always sympathetic to their situations, always keen to find out where they came from, what brought them here, to see behind the sad, garish smiles.
He is more ambivalent about their clients, who come over as endearingly naïve at best, monstrous and controlling at worst.
That said, Coles doesn’t impose an explicit narrative or moral on his images of Bangkok nightlife. Each image stands alone, a single event in a single night, take it or leave it.
Coles is a good painter, but more importantly (and more surprisingly), "Navigating the Bangkok Noir" works as a book in its own right, rather than just a glorified exhibition catalogue.
The closest comparison is with Philip Cornwel-Smith’s warm and wacky "Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture," to which it acts as a sort of grim, evil twin. Coles illuminates images from the bleaker, seedier side of Bangkok life, but ultimately it’s up to you, the reader, to do the work and create a story.