Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An interview with Chris Coles

Chris Coles is an American artist living in Bangkok. His work challenges the establishment in a kingdom obsessed with beauty, whiteness, and face. Chris paints the side of Bangkok that the politicians try to hide, or at least ignore. Chris Coles and his art will be appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club, Bangkok on the 19th October. He kindly spared me some time to speak about his work.

JN: Chris, I admired your observations on the inter-war German expressionism art scene and feel Bangkok is lucky to have you here. Where did your interest in art begin? Which artist, if any, got the ball rolling?

CC: I've been interested in art probably since I lived in Vienna for about 6 months in the mid-1970's. Vienna has many wonderful museums and I remember wandering around looking at the huge Hiƫronymus Bosch paintings, and the many paintings of other Vienna artists, Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Hundertwasser, and also a bunch of other Expressionist paintings by the German artists.....Vienna has a lively gallery scene too....altogether the entire central area of Vienna is kind of like a museum for Central Europe early 1900's.........

My favorite Expressionist artist is Emil Nolde and I studied his use of distortion and color very carefully....he painted many scenes of Berlin Nightlife early 1900's....later Hitler and Co took all of his work out of the museums and actually banned him from painting completely....friends used to smuggle small amounts of art materials to him and he would hide in a closet and paint little 5x7 inch watercolors for some years, later making some of them into large oil paintings.......but the little watercolors are fabulous, very dense and powerful...........I made "original" copies of many of them as a way to absorb his technique per following link:


I paint almost every day, sometimes large acrylics, sometimes smaller watercolors....almost all of my paintings start as small watercolors (as per Nolde who wrote that by starting with small watercolors, he never had a "block" as it was something that could easily be thrown away if it didn't work, whereas if he started a large oil painting, he would always be hesitant as the overall design and use of color, fearing to make a "mistake')..........I used to do quite a few pencil sketches and portraits of all the interesting faces that are wandering around Bangkok....not in an Expressionist style but more or less realistic style......some of them are quite good, but not as interesting as the Expressionist paintings which have a style and point of view.........

At the end of my working day, say around 10 or 11 PM, I go wandering around the Bangkok Night's various districts, gradually absorbing ideas and material......

JN: Vienna is my favourite city in the west. Not sure quite why, something to do with the layout of the city maybe. Interesting that you mention Nolde's technique of working from a small work and then using that to create a larger work. I know this is a technique you use yourself. When you venture out to do research, do you look for your subjects or do your subjects find you? This is a serious question. The characters in your works are almost always essentially flawed as human beings, or say, dogs. All art needs conflict. Bangkok is full of conflict. Is this conflict the essence of Bangkok noir?

CC: When I'm wandering around, some places I actually like or enjoy or see as well-staged, other places are a mess, badly designed, badly laid out, badly managed, badly staffed....but might be interesting or give me an interesting idea for a painting or mood or situation or character..........I might hang out in some place despite not actually liking it, might end up talking with people who I would never otherwise talk to, such as around Soi 3 and Soi Bin Laden/Grace Hotel......I'm kind of like a combination seagull-vacuum cleaner-anthropologist-spy, just collecting random bits of information, visual and otherwise, which then stews around in my mind in unforeseen ways and pops out ideas from time to time, either consciously or just in the process of painting stuff

JN: Mr Coles, you have worked in the movie business. Do you think there has ever been a great movie shot in Thailand?

CC: I can't recall any "Hollywood" film shot in Thailand that captures the excitement, depth and complexity of modern Bangkok or modern Thailand.....there have been a few films that have filmed their locations in Thailand for stories set not in Thailand but elsewhere, such as Vietnam War era films like THE KILLING FIELDS, HEAVEN AND EARTH, CASUALTIES OF WAR, etc.

In regard to Thai films, despite being hindered by draconian censorship rules such as no stories about corrupt police or officials (like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL or TRAINING DAY), no stories with too much sex (like DANGEROUS LIAISONS), no "wrong kind of stories" about politcs or Buddhism, there have been some interesting Thai films such as the 1st BANGKOK DANGEROUS, BEAUTIFUL BOXER, and others more recently.........(I'm not an expert on Thai films however so my knowledge is limited)

JN: I think Bangkok has such great potential as a backdrop to a crime movie. Christopher G. Moore's first detective novel seems to have optioned a couple of times. I think it is a matter of time.

CC: My first job in the movie industry was as New York Location Manager for Superman I with Chris Reeve and as someone with a lot of experience finding and shaping locations for movies, (LA STORY being a good example with its "Santa Monica/Nouvelle LA" look), I would say modern Bangkok is a fabulous location for films set in the modern present-day...........

The problem is the Thai film industry is severely hampered by state censorship by unimaginative bureaucrats (regardless of who is PM and which party is in power) and "Hollywood" only thinks of BKK in very cliched terms instead of as the huge multi-layered, diverse, complex very modern metropolis it has become.....

It should also be noted that the Thai state censorship applies to foreign films coming into Thailand regardless of whether or not they are intended for distribution in Thailand......so it severely limits the script/story potential of even a big Hollywood film coming into BKK............the script has to be submitted, it is censored then approved, then a state government official from the film board is on the film set to ensure the script submitted and approved is the same as the one that is being filmed.....the basic rules: no portrayal of police, army or government corruption, no unapproved mention or portrayal of the "power-relationships" that govern Thailand, no criticism or "negative" portrayal of Buddhism, limited sex/love scenes, etc.

JN: Thanks Chris for the interview. I love your work and look forward to the show at the FCC Bangkok on the 19th October 2012.

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