A Muscular young Thai man painted orange dances onstage in his underwear in Bangkok’s Boy’s Town. A man with neon green hair and a dark blue face stares from the canvas with red eyes and is “ready to rip apart and devour whatever he wants and needs”, according to the painting’s caption.
Chris Coles, the ex-Hollywood producer turned painter responsible for the pictures, says the intention behind his work, which will be shown in Phnom Penh this weekend, is to “use the Bangkok night to express a vision of modern Southeast Asia at this moment in time”.
On Friday night, Coles will showcase 30 paintings at Meta House while local band Krom will soundtrack the exhibition, titled Night Vision.
The idea is to feature two examples of Southeast Asian noir, which broadly refers to artistic themes of darkness, decadence and self-destruction, from two different mediums.
Coles says that rapid changes in both Thailand and Cambodia have resulted in social side--effects that lend themselves well to the genre.
“There’s a huge amount of social change going on in Southeast Asia, a lot of disintegration of social structures as a lot of kids move from rural areas to big cities, and there’s a lot of noir ambience and going-ons with extralegal activities.”
Krom frontman Chris Minko says his music and Coles’ paintings complement each other.
“Not only are we both directly on the noir topic, some of the songs I’ve written relate directly to the milieu that Chris has portrayed in Bangkok,” said Minko, whose band is based in Phnom Penh.
Coles takes his artistic cues from the expressionist artists who thrived in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler. With their distorted proportions and strange colours, artists such as Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix painted vivid images of Berlin’s decadent nightlife.
“They painted wildly distorted, kind of ugly, degenerate scenes, and often quite offensive.”
Today, Coles mimics that style to portray debauchery in 21st century Bangkok. He said that prostitution, which is the predominant topic of his work, is a great metaphor for broader social ills.
“The commercial sex industry is a symbol of human relationships gone a bit sour, when they’ve become monetised and depersonalised.”
Coles says that people mistake his work, which includes numerous paintings of scantily clad prostitutes, for glorification of Bangkok’s nightlife.
“I’ve had some very negative reactions but that’s because they don’t understand what I’m doing.”
Coles, who compared the nightlife’s grittier side to “a vision of Dante’s Inferno”, says that he deplores the situations that have provided his inspiration.
“As a result of the intimate knowledge I have, I’m not a promoter or a consumer of [nightlife]. I know so many tragic stories, people who have been totally destroyed by the nightlife industry.”
However, Coles says that the nightlife will not go away.
“People are easily bored, and they have the feeling they want some excitement. Nightlife has the illusion for excitement, if not actual excitement.”
In the meantime, Coles says that he counts the damage in terms of the human potential lost through alcoholism, disease and social stigma.
“The is the biggest negative of [this kind of] nightlife, the lost potential of females living in the nightlife.”
Coles says he hopes that Southeast Asia will stop providing him with noir material.
“I’m hoping that the noir will gradually diminish and there will be better lives and opportunity for the people who live here.”
Night Vision opens at 6:00pm on Friday, February 22. A Q&A session will be held with the artist at 8pm.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bennett Murray at [email protected]