By MALCOLM BURGESS
Pete Wheeler may be young, but inside him lurks an old soul. Look beyond his use of modern-day urban icons such as graffiti, snarling dogs, and third-world protesters, and you'll see the memento mori of the past masters - the human skull being the most obvious.
Then there's the fact that although he's only 26, Dunedin-based Wheeler has wanted to be an artist for as long as he can remember - specifically a painter from age 14.
He says his influences range from grunge music to globalisation - and his works try to make sense of the often fleeting sound-bites and televised ephemera of modern culture. "All those things you see in the blink of an eye," he says.
The scarf-wearing Palestinian youths in ICBM, because I keep lookin and huntin just like a lion and Achtung (all painted this year) are the most potentially emotive figures, featuring as regularly as they do on the evening news.
But Wheeler hopes the audience will also feel drawn on some level as individuals, rather than the modern archetype they have become. "Who is that guy? He's made of exactly the same stuff as you and me," he says.
And in Achtung, elements from Gustav Klimt combine effortlessly with the scrawled, dripping lettering of graffiti.
Angry, rabid dogs are the centrepiece for several other works, such as looks that kill and hell yeah.
Wheeler explains that an Indian proverb lies behind the decision to include them: "It says that there are two dogs inside you and whichever one you feed will come to the fore."
Wheeler's latest paintings are at least as aware of form as they are of their politics or metaphysics.
He is a dab hand at layering and composition, and his works manage to tie in a range of elements fruitfully, with no hint of the clutter of conceptual fly-paper.
And even if you don't agree with his politics, he's not about to be written off for lack of technical talent, he says. "You can't not like them because they're bad paintings," he says.
After graduating four years ago from Otago School of Art, Wheeler worked his way up the country, and now has dealers in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.
But while his fame is slowly growing in New Zealand, his sights are set on exhibiting worldwide.
"The Western world seems to be shrinking," he explains. But wherever he ends up, he wants it to be "outside his comfort zone". He muses with the idea of Germany, which "bore the terrible events of World War II 60 years ago".
That's not to say he doesn't feel he can find inspiration here. "Even in New Zealand, there are people who have a rough ride."
Still, he has difficulty thinking of any New Zealand artists who have inspired him. "I'm not one for the old-hat law of paint your 20 years and earn your right to a place in the New Zealand art world," he says. "It's early days yet for the New Zealand art industry - it's still in its baby years."
Who does Pete Wheeler think he is? Speculate to your heart's content - it's not a subject he's really concerned about.
For him, "identity" is an overplayed subject, especially in New Zealand art. "The inhouse New Zealand identity issue has been over-worked. I'm just a painter - not necessarily a New Zealand painter, but one who resides in New Zealand."
Wheeler's chosen profession seems to fit him as snugly as his blue denim suit. He loves the day-to-day reality of being a painter.
"I wouldn't do anything else in the world. It's like a conversation: it's in the bones; it's why I get out of bed."
However, it can be isolating at times, he says, and fills him with "constant self-doubt. But nothing gives me more pleasure, either."
If it's not immediately apparent whether Wheeler is grappling with youthful idealism or adeptly employing the most powerful symbols of history in the making, you can be sure of one thing - he has already found a definable Wheeler style to call his own.
* What: I went out wandering, looking for one good man, by Pete Wheeler
* Where: Whitespace, 1 Morgan St, Newmarket, to June 18