Joel Rea, 31, is a contemporary surrealist painter who currently lives and works in Queensland, Australia.  Since graduating from Queensland College of Art in 2003 he has exhibited his work in Australia and the United States. In recent years he has been acclaimed for his oil paintings in many prestigious art awards through out Australia.  His paintings are stunning in their attention to detail and seem to offer only a snapshot of a larger story filled with alternate endings. I am so thrilled that Joel took the time to chat with ModernArtTalk.

What got you interested in art?
I have a lot of different interests in life and I found that all of them can be incorporated into a life as an artist. Making art is like researching the world, making observations and predictions, and asking questions back to the universe.

Has growing up and living in Queensland, Australia influenced you as an artist?

Absolutely! I live and grew up on the Gold Coast; it’s a place you would visit for an awesome holiday, and when the reality of life takes you to the depths of your mind’s darkness, under a sky of paradise, the duality is intoxicating. I’ve had a pretty good life – I am very lucky I’d say! But I’ve also been through some heavy times and it’s all in my paintings. I find that my art is the best therapy.

You describe yourself as a Contemporary Surrealist Painter. What does that mean?

Salvador Dali will always be my hero, I’ll always wave the Surrealist flag, but to me Surrealism is a very broad genre within painting. Therefore, when I tell people that I’m a painter and they ask of what, I just show them pictures of my work on my Phone. I also described myself once as a hybrid – a Photo-Surrealist.

Your paintings seem almost as if they are a snapshot of a larger story that is being told. Is there something more to what the viewer sees?

Yes, my work is like a timeline of my life. My closest friends can always see the connections and metaphors between my life and my paintings. I’m really glad it’s that way because I can honestly say I’m being genuine in my intentions even if it compromises my financial success. These paintings are the story of my life, and spiritually I know we are all connected through our common thread of humanity; therefore, they represent everyones’ stories, my art is a quest for understanding, love and forgiveness.

When I look at your paintings, I feel like I have been taken far away and into another world. Is this your intention?

Yes. The narratives are based on real stories and emotions. I use metaphor and spectacle to create an exciting and entertaining universe. I think that I have learned that from being a comic book, pop culture kid. In my latest painting, Star Catchers, I wanted to make a work about my ongoing ambitions, as well as humanities potential in our time; the result was almost whimsical and like a story from childhood. I was very excited to stand back as see this ‘new place.’

How long does the typical painting take from start to finish?

A small piece takes around 50-100 hours and the biggest to date took 750 hours.

How are you able to achieve such an incredible detail in your paintings?

I spend an incredible amount of time sitting still, concentrating hard and watching plenty of good tv shows and movies. In one instance, I watched the whole first season of True Detective four times in a row. But I’m not really watching; instead, I am listening and meditating while the shows and movies run in the background as I dab away. Music is good too – but only sometimes.

Your paintings seem to have a few themes. Animals are featured in many of your pieces. Is there a reason for this?

I’m obsessed with animals, everything about them. When I was young it was dinosaurs, but the older I get, the more I can indulge in information and research. I have a growing thirst for general knowledge and nature is so incredible. It freaks me out!

And water?

I love surfing, but I’m terrified of drowning and shark attacks. Growing up near the beach, it becomes like oxygen; you need it to feel normal. After I saw a guy drown and more recently I become a father, a new blanket of fear is instilled in me and I don’t go surfing alone anymore. I skateboard more instead.

Is there a deeper meaning behind the grey hooded sweatshirts and dark suits that the men in your pieces are wearing?

They are the dual sides of my identity – both necessary and both competing for the possession of my soul.

Your ‘Last Supper’ painting is a fascinating twist on the Leonardo Da Vinci original. Was it difficult to recreate one of the most famous paintings in the world?

It was terribly difficult, but the challenge was really motivating. It was also really cool researching all the Da Vinci stuff and putting a spin on it. I imagined I was making a new relic with secret meanings locked within, but really it was all fantasy.

You also occasionally do portraits and recently did one of the actor Chris Hemsworth. How did that come to be?

He was at the top of my list to enter into an Australian portrait prize. I tried to get through professional avenues but after some denial it turned out we had a mutual friend that I knew since I was 6 years old. And then it was easy.

A painting of yours that really made me stop and think was ‘The Time has Come.’ What is happening here?

To me it says; Death (the wave) has come, have you lived the life the wanted? I love how a beautiful wave can represent the Grim Reaper. Art is a wonderful gift we give ourselves and each other.

You can see Joel Rea’s body of work at

Interview conducted by Matthew Samuels

Edited by Julie Samuels and Victoria Danan


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