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Enter the survey of Peter Stichbury's career so far at Te Tuhi and a funny thing happens. Seen individually, his large heads with their big eyes can look merely cute and synthetic.

En masse they become disturbing, challenging the viewer to look under the perfect surface and see the social commentary going on under the clichés and stereotypes.

Stichbury paints for his peers whose formative years through the 1980s and 90s were dominated by American television series and John Hughes' teen-oriented movies like Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club.

"I guess I'm a society painter of sorts. I'm trying to illustrate what is going on psychologically in our community with the way the popular media represents people and the way we are made to feel our appearance should be," he says.

"Things have changed for Generation Y. They are slightly aware of being manipulated by the media in terms of what things will make them sexy or cool and how they should wear their hair. They understand the machine."

All Stichbury's subjects look relatively young, their skin unblemished, or if pimpled, done so in an extreme way. He draws his subjects from photos found in magazines or on the internet, mixed in with memories of people he has known. He makes up back stories for the people whose physical identity he steals.

"The Young Pleasure Seekers series [in 2001] was about people who had been leeched of their identity, so there were these sexualised empty shells," he says. "I've kind of moved through to this strange neurotic psychological portrait, which is everybody else, the physical and psychological quirks that people have."

He is fascinated by the obsession of the young about where they fit and how to understand and navigate social groups. "I was one of the smallest guys at school but I was really good at sport. I was king of the nerds in the art department but I could run and catch a ball as well."

He attributes his "kooky" approach to figures to "making my best friend at high school laugh, making him blow Fanta out of his nose by showing him goofball portraits of classmates. I haven't progressed much".

At art school, Stichbury started on a series of portraits after finding a book in the Elam library of photographs of German intellectuals. "I picked out the most oddball faces and on a formal level learned to construct the anatomy of a face. Doing that I fell into my own style."

Stichbury paints slowly, working up layers to get the expression and the sheen he is looking for. "Acrylic paint dries darker so you have to keep adjusting the tone. It takes as long as oil because I have to do it over and over to get the blends right."

There's a waiting list for his paintings, leading to discussions with his gallery - Starkwhite on K Rd - on how to increase production.

"I bought a projector to speed things up. It was really expensive. I put my photograph on there ready to go, I drew it on and had the outline on the canvas, I looked at it and thought, 'This is like other people's work'. I lost all the things I like in my work, all the quirks and the weird asymmetry and the bung eyes."

I put it to him that he could license his creations as Second Life avatars, giving people a shell to project their internet life on. "That's funny. I had this idea of making it into a board game, a game of life. I'm interested in the way people construct an identity online that is this perfect version of themselves. They'll have a Flikr account with pictures of themselves but it will only be the best pictures.

"They'll have their blog which will be their most profound thoughts on life - it'll paint this great picture of them - and then they will have this MySpace page which will show how popular they are and a Facebook which shows how many friends they have got," Stichbury says.

"It's interesting the way we make choices and as artists how we represent the world. I choose to work in this way which some people say is caricature or cartoony but I look at it as a continuation of art history. I'm trying to represent our times and the way we are."

Peter Stichbury
Who: Auckland artist, born 1969. Graduated Bachelor of Fine Arts, Elam, University of Auckland, 1997; post-grad studies, with Masters Honours Scholarship, Elam, 1999.

Awards include: Buddle Findlay Art Award, Ivy Copeland Portrait Award, James Wallace Premier Award.

What: The Alumni, first major public gallery exhibition by Stichbury.

Where and when: Te Tuhi, 13 Reeves Rd, Pakuranga, to September 21, then touring to other centres.