For the past nine years. Serbian-born, Toronto-based artist Viktor Mitic has strong-armed his way into his current high-profile, media-fraught reputation by relentlessly emptying thousands of rounds of ammo into his paintings. For Mitic, an M14 rifle is as familiar to him as his own brushes.
He was trained as an artist in Serbia, and learned all about firearms during his period of national service with the Serbian army. He moved to Toronto from Belgrade in 1990. A restless experimenter, Mitic quickly developed a radical painting practice, including his sumptuous and surprising Rain paintings—first shown at the Muramatsu Gallery in Tokyo in 2007—for which he placed his big, still-wet oil and acrylic paintings outside under the weather, letting a passing cloudburst complete them. “Most of the textures you see in them,” he once told me, “are created by water droplets smashing down onto the surface of the freshly painted canvases.” It was a species of meteorological automatism.
Co-existent in time with his Rain works, were Mitic’s now infamous Bullet Paintings (2007-2016)—extravagantly praised by many of their viewers (“brave, fresh!”) and just as extravagantly deplored by others (“irreverent, disrespectful!”). He made them using a variety of weapons (M14 and AR-16 rifles are among his favourite tools), firing at his paintings with precision and a draftsmanly sureness of hand so that his iconic, high-profile subjects are outlined—highlighted—with bullet-holes, rather than simply obliterated by them.
His victimized (or perhaps bullet-hallowed) paintings have included his notorious Hole Jesus from 2008, his Tsumami (After Hokusai)—Mitic’s military-industrial re-adjustment of the Japanese master’s sublimity—his spectacular Blasted Guernica, his May 03 Redux, a re-encountering of Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, Special (John Lennon), Dallas (John. F. Kennedy), Character 2 (Ronald McDonald) and Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (I once referred to Mitic’s use of the bullet-hole, in this majestic painting, as his “neo-pointillism”)—and so goes the hit list. The first wave of the bullet-pictures was enshrined in a luxurious volume titled Love or War in 2010. The apotheosis of the bullet-works is certainly Mitic’s recent Incident, a stock school bus he bought and then riddled with over 6000 rounds of ammunition. The wayward bus made its U.S. debut in 2013 at The Newtown Project: Art Targets Guns in Washington, D.C.
It was with no little surprise, then, that I learned recently from Mitic that he was working diligently on a body of large abstract sculptures. Abstract, no less. This is no inconsiderable turn-around for the fastest gun in the art world.
Mitic has two studios. One, in downtown Toronto, is a painting studio. The second, in the city’s west end, is basically a forge—an assembly shop, now filled with metal cutters and drills and benders and welders.
It all sounds engagingly offhand. The new works—so far unnamed, either individually or as a series—began, Mitic says, as “paint drippings on the floor.”
These drippings were photographed and then adjusted, altered, cleaned up, smoothed out and otherwise made acceptable to the artist—via the wonders of photoshop. After which they were substantially enlarged and then printed on paper. Mitic then cut out the paper shapes and, working rather the way Tintoretto did (who suspended wax and clay figures from threads in a wooden box with an aperture for a candle, just to see how the composition was faring), hung them up in the studio (“using thread and scotch tape”).
After all this no doubt delightful pawing of the ground, Mitic would re-photograph the shaped, coloured elements (making them even bigger) and project them onto aluminum sheets (each 5’ x 10’ and thus destined to be fastened together into much vaster surfaces). The aluminum sheets hung in the studio from ropes or bungee cords. Mitic says he was going to use sheets of steel, but the steel was just too heavy to suspend and also too cumbersome to motorize (for some of the sculptures include small motors that cause the works to slowly revolve).
Once the coloured shapes were chosen, Mitic began welding them into the developing sculpture. Each constituent piece was duly primed by hand and then sprayed in rich, chromatically clean, pure matte hues. Then varnished (Mitic says he and his assistant used the same high-end automobile varnish that is lavished upon, for example, Lamborghinis: it’s an expensive way to ensure his getting the clear, open, innocent kind of colour he wanted).
Though fabricated in a rather muscular, macho way, Mitic’s cut-out metal constructions have less to do with the epic sweatiness of a Richard Serra than they do with the playfulness of a Miro or the tangled, exuberant congestion- reliefs of a Frank Stella. Somehow, even at their vast scale, they maintain their guileless, paper- cutout effect, and their colourizing is, though sophisticated, often refreshingly childlike.
Some of the new pieces—which are so new they haven’t been seen by anybody yet (or titled) are screen-like affairs, usually suspended, sometimes motorized. Others are constructions built on a single vertical armature—and these are often motorized too. All in all, they make an astonishing contrast to the Art or War works. If I didn’t think it would diminish them in any way (and they are really too noble for that), l’d call them toy-like and, in the end, enchanting: a coda of great innocence to the long shootist epic that went before.