Fascinated by the diversity of faces found in Southeast Asia, artist Chris Cole has spent the last two decades immortalising Phnom Penh and Bangkok’s notorious nightscapes. Marissa Carruthers catches up with him ahead of his latest exhibition.
“I’m not a moralist, I’m not glamourising sex tourism,” says artist Chris Cole, who originally hails from the US. “I’m showing real Cambodian girls with real lives. I don’t think I degenerate the women, I show them in a story. There’s a subtext there and that gives a certain poignancy.”
Cole’s latest exhibition features his signature style: vivid colours portray an array of almost demonic faces, ogre-like figures towering over women and distorted late-night scenes featuring the sex workers that dot pockets of Phnom Penh.
As a graduate of the UK National Film School, Cole spent 25 years working in the film industry on big budget hits, including Superman, Chaplin and LA Story.
His last film was Cutthroat Island, which was filmed in southern Thailand and initally introduced him to Southeast Asia – a place he continued to return to until about 15 years ago when he bought a small condo in Bangkok as a base to explore the rest of the region.
Having always had an interest in art and drawing – with an artistic streak running through his family from his grandmother to aunt and mother – Cole became fascinated by the faces he encountered.
“The genetic diversity in Southeast Asia is incredible,” he says. “There are so many different people coming here from across Asia that help this genetic make-up. The real Khmers have really chiselled features, like the statues at Angkor Wat. I found it so interesting that I started doing portraits.”
Inspired by German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, who painted Berlin’s nightlife in the 1920s and 30s, Cole decided to use this medium to bring the modern-day night scenes of Bangkok and Phnom Penh to life.
“A lot of these German expressionists’ paintings from Berlin at that time are very similar to the Bangkok night scene that dances with visuals and degenerate faces,” he says.
“It’s not realistic painting because it’s such a distorted vision of humanity; it’s this distortion that I’m trying to capture.”
Since launching his painting career in 2001, Cole has immersed himself in the two capitals’ nightlives, capturing more than 2,000 scenes on canvas. He has gone on to showcase his work across the globe.
Despite his seemingly seedy subject matter – Cole is quick to state he doesn’t indulge in any “extra” activities with his models, claiming sex workers have been used by artists, citing the Paris scene in the 1900s and Berlin in the 1920s and 30s as examples – the artist says his main aim is to paint these women in a different light and give them a sense of humanity.
“I show the girls their paintings and they love that someone is giving them a little bit of a voice and explaining their lives,” he says. “They’re real people, often
taking care of their kids. Many people
think of them as a piece of meat but I’m treating them as the mother of two kids supporting their family. I’m giving a voice to their struggles; I like to give them a sense of dignity.”
While Cole says Bangkok’s sex industry is much larger and more mainstream than Phnom Penh’s, Cambodia has still provided him with a wealth of material. “Walkabout was always a goldmine for me,” he says, adding Pontoon, Heart of Darkness and Candy Bar have also given him a wealth of material. He adds his
art features almost no nudity and no
Often starting his work as a small watercolour on paper as a kind of sketch, he then transforms those that work into the pieces he puts on display.
“I like to think that this is a world where these women have managed to get through to the other side, like the gladiators,” he says. “Most people who enter this world become casualties; there’s a lot of collateral damage.”
Catch Cole’s latest exhibition, Noir Nights in Phnom Penh, featuring 23 large paintings, which are acrylic on canvas, at Meta House throughout February.