Beneath the visually enamoring and stupendously surreal paintings of Joel Rea lies a dark underbelly. Upright tigers in the middle of a New York City gallery block and skittering businessmen surrounding a building-sized dog may seem like whimsical scenes, but they ultimately deal with the Australia-based artist's complicated ideas on the human condition and existential despair.
Crossroads, the painting depicting a tiger on a Chelsea neighborhood sidewalk, strongly exemplifies the complexity of Rea's artistic intentions. Besides the upright tiger standing in front of a Chelsea gallery, a small, well-dressed monkey stares into the gallery's glass façade, while a nude child chases after a butterfly and a young couple walk a wolf on a leash. Painted on the side of the building, Jesus lies crucified onto an iPhone while distributing likes and followers from his bleeding palms.
As Rea explains, this chaotic menagerie is more than a blanket of surrealism over an otherwise beautiful painting. "While staying in New York, my apartment was located in Chelsea and just down the street from Jonathan LeVine Projects, where my solo exhibition hung for the month of my stay. After I returned to painting in Australia, it was definitely necessary to culminate the hundreds of photographs and thousands of thoughts and experiences from New York into a major painting," the artist tells Creators.
"Through my formula of purpose and luck, the immenseness of my NYC research forced out a reactive painting that was not only an homage to the pinnacle of Western civilization, but a complex personal statement loaded with hidden symbols and gestures of fear and fondness," he says.
Rea says, "In Crossroads, my greatest fears are brought to life in dreamy daytime glare. When I consider humanity and our instincts, I believe we have more in common with technology than the animal kingdom, as if we have intellectually outgrown our animal bodies. Humanity's need to incessantly document our captivity on Earth gives me introspection into my own absolute meaninglessness within the universe and the beautiful randomness of our planet which grew our exuberant purposeful species into existence."
This highly philosophical explanation sheds light onto many elements within the painting, yet central tiger plays into many of Rea's other paintings and we ask why. He explains, "The tigers featured in my paintings live about 30 minutes away from my house at a theme park. I go and watch them and feel excitement, terror, and some sadness."
"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, but they are manipulated by humans for their own needs, and it's those themes I discuss in my paintings. Through my employment of surrealism, I try to correct the world idealistically and depict the savage animal as a conscious human, and vice-versa."
More of Joel Rea's surreal paintings with complex, layered messages can be seen here.