For Gold Coast artist and surfer Joel Rea, the struggle is sublime.
Words by Tim Baker | Art & photographs courtesy of Joel Rea
Light / Dark
There’s no indication from the street of what goes on behind a tidy garden of palms and hedges in front of an otherwise unremarkable yellow-brick and red-tiled suburban home in the Gold Coast hinterland. But inside, an unfathomable world dwells in the small downstairs studio of artist and surfer Joel Rea.
On any given day, Rea might find himself swept up in tidal waves or struggling to keep his head above water as he’s stalked by sharks. He might be floating through space, teetering from the edge of a cliff, wrestling with massive blobs of Blu-Tack, fleeing giant dogs, or engaged in a tug-of-war with alternative versions of himself—all on the canvas.
Rea was told from an early age that if he ever wanted to make it as an artist, he’d have to move away from his beloved Gold Coast, the surf- and sun-drenched holiday town on Australia’s east coast that’s often derided as a cultural wasteland. The young painter set about proving the naysayers wrong, and made it he certainly has.
Rea’s fine-art depictions of both worldly and otherworldly struggles have won him many of the major art prizes in Australia, and he’s staged exhibitions in London, New York, LA, Berlin, and Singapore. In fact, it might be in his own hometown where he commands the least amount of attention.
“It’s such a Gold Coast thing to be a world-renowned artist, but not be known on the Gold Coast,” says Rea. “Because of the way I’ve shaped my career, a lot of people assume I’m from the US. And that’s fine. But I have a real pride in coming from the Gold Coast, simply because I did make it from here.”
Rea’s family moved to Australia from England when he was 2 years old, giving him an outsider’s view of the world early on. Rea’s uncle, Murray Bourton, is a legendary surfboard shaper whose Pipedream label was ubiquitous on the Gold Coast in the 1980s and 90s, with a shop in Coolangatta. His cousin, Chris Rea, was a successful musician, best known for his 80s hit “On the Beach.” Both relatives instilled in Rea the idea that it was possible to make an independent living built from one’s own creative powers, but the latter’s efforts also might well have provided the soundtrack for his adolescence.
“There was a lot of beach time, because it’s free,” Rea says.
“I didn’t come from wealthy parents. Whatever we did, it was around the beach. I started out by hitting the shorebreak on a McDonald’s tray, then later my mate’s dad would take us to D-bah early every morning.”
Rea attended Palm Beach Currumbin State High School, where the surfing-excellence program produced star alumni like Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, and Dean Morrison. While at university, Rea supported himself with a job at a chicken shop, which he chucked upon graduation to pursue the far-fetched dream of making a living from his art.
“I went to an agency,” he says, “and they said, ‘You have to move from the Gold Coast if you want a career in the arts. Move to Sydney or Melbourne.’ I just went, ‘I’m not. I love it here. I’ve got a girlfriend here and my parents here.’ It’s sad that that’s what a lot of people get told, and they give up—that gives them that excuse to give up. I saw it as a challenge.”
Quickly thereafter, another Gold Coast artist, Dean Cogle, was drawn to Rea’s work and invited him to hang some paintings at an exhibition he was having. Rea sold two paintings for $1,000 and spent the lot on art supplies. Soon he was working as an animator, with part-time jobs at a gallery and as an assistant to another artist, as well as painting his own commissions. Before he knew it, Rea was making a living as a full-time artist, and he’s never looked back.
“It’s not where you are, it’s what you’re willing to do,” he says. “I’d say that to anyone, especially the way the internet’s opened up things. There’s no more gatekeepers stopping you from exposing your work to everyone who’s willing to receive it.”
The other battle Rea waged was between his own artistic ambitions and his more kicked-back surf and skate lifestyle, a clash he often portrays in his work.
“I was brought up around a lot of cruisy people who just surfed and stuff,” he says. “That lifestyle was really attractive, having as little tying you down as possible. You are captive to your possessions and your home and your debts.”
A painting titled Return to Genesis depicts this dilemma in the form of a piece of red material being fought over by three dogs as they rise through the sky. “That’s me getting pulled in all directions—my ambition, my chilled-out self, wanting to skate, wanting to surf. It’s hard when you want to do heaps of everything in life,” he says.
It’s difficult to say which has won out, or if his competing identities have reached an uneasy truce. Rea will painstakingly labor over a canvas, rendering meticulous photorealistic detail in supernatural settings, then, just as naturally, duck outside for a skate or head down the road for a quick surf check.
Unsurprisingly, the ocean is a powerful presence in Rea’s work: abstract waves that wrap around animal skulls like shrouds, mountainous peaks that threaten to engulf families and bodysurfers and businessmen, tidal surges as destructive as they are alluring that sweep over entire coastlines.
“When two beautiful things come together, it can be a beautiful end; imagine just kicking back and watching that,” he says of his painting A Beautiful End, which hints at looming climate catastrophe and rising sea levels, an image that seems both disturbingly prescient and hauntingly attractive.
His ocean-inspired art brings to mind the abstract seascapes of photographers like Jon Frank and Ray Collins.
“It’s a force constantly pushing you back,” says Rea. “The cool thing about surfing is that it’s like a martial art. You tend to use its energy, and then you’re on its energy. I’m pointing out that even mundane, uninteresting waves are fascinating and weird and full of color—bursts of glass-like structures. It will never happen again. Every wave is a weird, spontaneous form, and then it’s dead.”
Rea has also turned his focus to the people who define his lifestyle and home. In 2018, he teamed up with his former schoolmate Fanning to produce a portrait of the three-time world champ on the occasion of his retirement from the pro tour. Edge of Infinity depicts Fanning standing on the end of a precipice, gazing up at the viewer, wetsuit pulled down to his waist, a boiling ocean beneath him stretching off into a star-filled night sky.
“I said to him, ‘I want you to wear the wetsuit, but I don’t want to be able to tell if you’re taking it off or putting it on. You’re retiring, but you’re not quitting surfing,’” says Rea. “As an afterthought, instead of just continuing the ocean as an ocean, I let it float off into the galaxy to give it a sense of being this rolling infinity.”
For all the inspiration gleaned from the ocean and surfing, it was a New York City streetscape, titled Crossroads, that really catapulted Rea’s career to another level. In it, an oversize tiger stands on a street corner while being observed impassively by passersby, all while a naked baby dashes across a pedestrian crossing.
It’s an intricate image unsettling in its stunning photorealism and sheer improbability.
“When I released that painting,” says Rea, “it had an effect I’d never seen before and I might never capture again. I couldn’t even keep up with the number of outlets sharing it; it was like a viral painting. And to me, that recognition was important. To me, it’s a seminal statement painting where I can show people my versatility—that I can go to the city and I can paint the city.”
The sale of his 2018 painting High Hopes, of a tiger attempting to catch a missile high above Earth’s surface, to Joe Rogan similarly sent his work and reputation into the stratosphere. Singer Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child recently invited him out to dinner “to pick my brain,” Rea says. And who can blame her? If Rea’s artwork is a window to his mind, there’s plenty there to pick through. Thematically, Rea identifies with surrealism, despite some reservations.
“I don’t do melting clocks,” he says. “It’s not a passage to psychedelic craziness.”
But Rea is comfortable with what he calls the sublime school of art.
“It’s like this combination of fear and beauty,” he says. “The two can be used with each other to evoke the most extreme emotion possible. I feel that’s what I’m doing in scenarios where these beautiful waves are coming to kill you. I look at surrealism as just that slight nudge away from reality. It’s art doing what art can do. A painting can take you from safety to unsafe, from the rules of the universe to breaking the rules. All of a sudden, nothing makes sense, and hair turns into snakes. I like that.”