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Looking at the work of Australian painter Joel Rea is a totally immersive experience, we are truly at the deep end here, plunging into worlds so real, so tangible … yet so utterly surreal. The meticulous detail is only matched by the intrusion of the patently unreal, and yet in that fully immersed state we are swept along by the powerful undercurrents of recognition and denial, until disbelief is suspended and the worlds of Joel Rea speak their own truth.
These truths may be uncomfortable for us to face, so confident are we in the supremacy of humanity, but here Joel does not allow us to dissemble, to hide. We are at once far less than we imagine in the scale of the natural world, and far more powerful than is desirable in our ability to destroy. Joel shared with beautiful.bizarre his background, his motivation, his methods, but even with all of that to arm us we are still no less in awe. There is no defence when next one of his works captures us within its detail, then sweeps us through unreality to yet another potent truth.
The appreciation of technique and craft seems to be making inroads into the fine art world – and not before time! Do you find that there are still barriers to the acceptance of artists like yourself among the artistic “establishment”?
Barriers are mostly just people ignoring you. I ignore interesting things in life all the time, sometimes something just doesn’t move you, maybe it’s the time in your life or your energy and it’s ok to feel nothing about something others find epic. So when you’re the one being ignored, it’s also ok. Also culture takes time to catch up in Australia, I find culture density is linked to population density. In the United States or Europe Pop Surrealists painters are the museums stars, it could be due to more progressive and sustainable museums taking note of crowd attendance too, realism, hyper realism…are enjoyed much by the general public if not art elitists.
I have remarked to other Australian painters I have interviewed recently, including Robin Eley and Jeremy Geddes, that there seems to be an incredible vein of surreal hyper-realism in Australian art at the moment. What do you think we could chalk that up to – something in the air / the water / a collective up yours to arts academia?
Probably the internet and technology opening up things for us obsessive OCD types, it’s the best time to be alive and explore the visual world. Camera’s and the filming devices are making things open up for artists on a budget too. But for technicality I think everyone is observing each other very closely (via the internet) I know the healthy completion pushes me to go longer and harder, seeing a lot of current content and fresh art all the time, it’s very motivating to make your own.
Since we’ve broached the subject of your style, let’s break that into its two components. Firstly, hyperrealism – was this always core to your arts practice and if so what were you inspirations to head in this direction? It is surely a very painstaking and meticulous process – do you ever feel the urge to grab a really large brush and just lay into the canvas?
I’m entertaining something internal for sure, I’ve always loved looking at technically impressive art, and oils were always behind my most important earliest positive art interventions. Dali freaked me out from an early age. I may try bigger brushes one day, never count me out as my eyesight is deteriorating from sitting too close to the TV as a kid, and now as an adult I’m sitting too close to the painting.
Now to the surrealism so clearly evident in your work – what were your motivations for that? The continuing themes such as the tigers, the dogs, the falling businessman with papers scattered to the winds … do these carry a particular weight for you, a message you are conveying to your audience?
I started really simple, and with subject matter from immediately around me, over the years my life and career got more and more interesting and it shows in my imagery. Travelling has really helped and also a lot of research, I listen to audio all day mainly documentaries and podcasts, over the years my thirst for knowledge has really intensified, I get obsessive. I’m moving from a period of making very self-reflective work to now choosing an approach based on commentary and my reaction to place or time in history, again an expanding theme, the complexity of our existence saturating my every intention. The tigers featured in the painting live about thirty minutes’ drive from my house at a theme park, I go and watch them feeling excitement, terror and also some sadness. The humans in my paintings give the viewer accessibility and also provide reference to my use of amplified scale. I’ve always seen tigers as the most beautiful animal in the world, so it was quite simple to start painting them. Tigers are powerful and wild, their appearance is fantasy like but tigers also are manipulated by humans for their own needs, and it’s those themes I discuss in my paintings and in an idealistic way I try to correct the world in my paintings.
Speaking of inspirations and motivations, who/what were your early artistic influences? Did your move from the UK to Australia alter the way you looked at art or the type of art you wanted to produce?
Dali of course, and Australian painters like Jeffrey Smart and James Gleeson, but I always floated in and out of fine art and into other visual worlds such as comic books, illustration, album covers, cartoons and pop culture. I’m pretty lucky because I love almost everything. I left the UK too early to remember the impact the move had was more of my interpretation of my parents’ identity and therefore my own. The natural world is my greatest consistent inspiration, its complexity and infinite detail really blows my mind. My personal ideology is to acknowledge my place as merely an organism sharing this planet, I portray myself navigating Earth as one of its most complex animals, the human, and within this rich narrative I have endless material to explore.
Water – sky – clouds, your reproduction of these with the complexities of shadows, the play of light, can only be described as incredible. With many artists’ work the background is very much secondary to the dominant theme or central figure, whereas for you there is no respite from fine detail from corner to corner. Do you place your figures within a landscape, or is the landscape, the background, an integral part of the whole?
The sky and landscapes are very much characters in my paintings, as they are in life. Living in Australia we have amazing natural surroundings, there is life, beauty and danger everywhere. The weather also affects moods so it’s a useful tool to evoke that same effect in picture making.
Footage of Joel working on his painting ‘Last Man Standing‘, oil on canvas.
(cut and paste question to all artists here)We have many creatives in our audience and they just love the gory details of technique. Can you share your process with us, from conception to completed work, and how this has evolved over your career? And speaking of conception to completion, how long does that take considering the detail required? (and are you envious of artists using those previously mentioned really large brushes?)
No, I don’t think you choose your style it comes out of you mostly automatically, most art making is finding a satisfying end point, I’m pretty much always clashing my end points with my deadlines and trust me it’s a struggle to hand over finished work.
I go everywhere with a camera, I feel naked without it. Photography is my sketch book and the majority of my creative process happens in the design process of a painting, after that it is mostly all labour to bring the painting to life, hours and hours sitting still and concentrating very hard. The initial idea will come to me in a spontaneous vision, I’ll make a quick sketch and then begins the task of pulling all the real things in the world towards me in order to create the piece, primarily using photographic reference and often real objects and models from life as well.
Now to the future, what are you working on at the moment, and what shows do you have coming up?
Jonathan LeVine Gallery, ‘Welcome to NJ’ group show to launch – Jonathan LeVine Projects, based in Mana Contemporary in New Jersey, USA, February 18 – March 18
Solo – New Paintings, Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane, Australia. September 2017