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culture

Paint by Bullets

An unlikely marriage of mediums has brought us this portrait of Rob Ford.

Viktor Mitic’s portrait of Mayor Ford.

Unless you’re artist Viktor Mitic, you don’t usually equate discharging a semi-automatic Ruger SR22 rifle with portraiture painting. But in preparation for his upcoming solo exhibition, POINT BLANK – Art Or War at De Luca Fine Art Gallery, the controversial artist took aim at a likeness of his worship, Mayor Ford, in a farmer’s field outside Toronto.

Sprayed with rounds of bullets, the resulting piece is surprisingly appealing.

The Mayor Ford shootout was originally scheduled to take place at an indoor gun range. After management got wind of Mitic’s intended target, though, they became squeamish and asked him to leave. This wasn’t the first time art has gotten Mitic ejected from a shooting gallery: a complaint of Mitic’s is that shooting-range management—at least here in Canada—is often reluctant to permit him to use canvases for target practice.

When your arsenal of painting equipment includes Glocks and .38 Specials, you’ve got a conundrum: discharging a firearm in a traditional art studio isn’t practical, let alone legal. On more than one occasion, Mitic has crossed into the U.S., where ranges are less sensitive to his methods.

What’s an artist to do when he’s been ejected from a local gun range (and a cross border jaunt isn’t feasible)? Phone a friend, of course.

And that’s just what Mitic did—and why he’s in luck today. A acquaintance with a swath of land northwest of Toronto that doubles as a outdoor shooting range has agreed to allow Mitic to shoot up his worship’s image on the rural property. The same friend has come though in a pinch before. It was in this field that Mitic created one of his most controversial pieces.

Working in the cold isn’t ideal. Making it worse is the fact that this particular day is unseasonably chilly. Sub-zero temps affect how bullets are expelled from the Ruger’s blunted barrel, which in turn affects how punctures appear on the canvas. Before firing a single shot into the Ford piece, he’ll have to discharge a series of practice rounds into a dummy canvas.

Fingertips numb, shivering, shoulder aching from rifle recoil, Mitic’s now been in the cold going on an hour. Although he sports ear protection, he admits to having developed permanent hearing loss as a result of repeated exposure to gunfire.

Talk about suffering for your art.

The artist and the material he uses to create.

Seeking temporary warmth in a service shed, prior to beginning the process of reloading the Ruger’s magazine clips with ammunition about the length a straight pin and the thickness of a pencil, Mitic cups his hands and blows on them. His digits near frostbitten, the reloading will be no easy task.

Mitic has no animosity toward Mayor Ford or any of his other subjects. He’s shot up likenesses of Jesus Christ, JFK, John Lennon, and Quentin Tarantino, among others. Some of his subjects, although not all, are connected to real or imagined violence. A self-confessed pacifist, Mitic’s desire is to force society to have a conversation about our perverse attraction to gun violence.

If you think these canvases are simply acrylic paintings marred with bullet holes, think again. If the medium really is the message, employing a .38 Special—the same type of handgun used to slay John Lennon in 1980—on the Lennon portrait, .38 Special, packs an even stronger anti-gun wallop.

Warmed up and locked and loaded, Mitic returns to the back forty. He readies the portrait of Mayor Ford on a cedar fencepost a safe distance from spectators, but the 132 cm X 106 cm canvas initially refuses to remain in place. After a few tries, Mitic has the canvas where he wants it.

In addition to experimenting with bullets and canvas, Mitic has also created an extensive body of work. He’s been lauded for his collection Dealers, as well as villainized for shooting a disused school bus to bits and then touring it on the back of a flatbed.

Titled INCIDENT, the installation proved eerily prescient, as it was completed in the months prior to the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Post tragedy, the artist publicly displayed the hulking steel carcass in Washington, D.C. while elected officials gathered to discuss new gun control legislation. The presence of a shot-to-smithereens bus horrified, shocked, and angered many. To Mitic’s delight, it also prompted conversation.

Viktor Mitic at work.

Mitic stands closer to the canvas than one would expect, sweeping the rifle’s barrel in a gentle, forward motion while squeezing the trigger. The tinny pop-pop-pop of the small caliber rifle echoes through the countryside as brass bullet casings accumulate in the grass and light snowfall around Mitic’s feet.

Mitic’s worked out a method. The placement of the barrel, the angle, the distance between bullets holes—all these must be considered when aiming to achieve a specific texture and composition for the final product.

At first blush, firing rounds into a canvas might seem destructive. But in Mitic’s hands, the opposite is true. Framed by bullet holes, his subjects are cast in an entirely new light.

In a way that’s the point of Viktor Mitic’s undertaking: presenting a subject in a new light while simultaneously casting a spotlight on issues surrounding gun violence.

Point Blank-Art or War runs between December 5-28 at De Luca Fine Art Gallery.

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