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visual art

After completing a painting, Viktor Mitic takes it to a shooting range where he puts on the finishing touches, sometimes spraying as many as 3,000 bullets at a canvas.

In a silent 42-minute video, Toronto painter Viktor Mitic demonstrates his strange artistic process.

In one scene, we see his portrait of Jesus Christ, a minimalist work done in vivid acrylics. A halo of gold leaf crests over Jesus's head and his gaze is serene, seemingly fixed upon something in the far-off distance.

Or perhaps he's looking toward the assault rifle that suddenly moves into the frame. The gun pauses briefly over Jesus's left temple, then rapidly blasts a constellation of bullet holes around his head.

Mitic is no agnostic - the 40-year-old Serbian-born artist is Orthodox Christian. Nor is he a gun enthusiast, he insists. He just likes to create art, using the occasional AK-47 or semi-automatic pistol.

"It is a bit strange," Mitic admits. "Before I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to shoot the picture of Jesus.' But then I realized I'm not shooting at the picture of Jesus, I'm creating a picture of Jesus with this medium."

Mitic was so pleased with the results that he's since taken up arms against all of his artworks - which has spurred both outrage from some audiences and interest from galleries.

It's the kind of attention-getting strategy that has worked before. From Andreas Serrano's Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix in urine) to Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary portrait using elephant dung, disrespect for iconic imagery can be good for sales.

Jesus continues to be one of Mitic's targets. The painter also recently completed a triptych of portraits that will be exhibited at Toronto's AWOL gallery next month. And he's finishing a portrait series of well-known art dealers such as Larry Gagosian, Nicholas Metivier and Alan Loch - a scheme likely to capture even more attention from movers and shakers in the art world.

In fact, it was an art dealer who first inspired Mitic's interest in the artistic potential of guns, after a rather unpleasant encounter last June.

The dealer dropped by Mitic's studio to appraise some paintings but spent the entire visit on his cellphone, shushing the artist while trying to sell a Michelangelo Pistoletto painting to a New York client. The dealer left, but not without first glancing over Mitic's Jesus Christ portrait and declaring it "not penetrating enough."

A somewhat impish man with a predilection for puns, Mitic immediately had an idea: He called his friend, fellow artist Kiat Lim Chew, and three hours later they were in a 24-hour shooting range in Buffalo, unleashing a salvo of bullets onto the work. Mitic has since named the painting, appropriately, Hole Jesus . Its price is $8,050.

"I was thinking, 'Am I going to be punished by God later on in life?'" he recalls. "But then you just go into a different zone and it became work, it became painting."

To date, Mitic has punched about 100,000 gunpowder-scorched holes through more than 50 of his paintings. He still crosses the border to create his "penetrating art" because Ontario shooting ranges won't let him use pictures of people as targets, something they fear can be construed as practising for an execution or assassination.

So far, he's pointed his gun at images of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Benazir Bhutto, John F. Kennedy and the Virgin Mary, to name a few. He's shot a painting of John Lennon using the same model of gun that killed the singer, a Charter Arms .38-calibre pistol. He's also doused a painting of Mao Zedong in pig's blood, blasting it full of holes and naming it Mao Tze Bang .

And then there's his painting of the Last Supper, which Mitic spent seven hours spraying with about 3,000 rifle bullets. This one he dubbed The Blast Supper .

As violent as it all sounds, Mitic insists his work is about subverting guns and their negative connotations. "It's about disturbing the norm," he says. "Weapons have been used against people. I'm trying to use it as a pencil, as a paintbrush."

Before discovering the way of the gun, Mitic created mostly large abstract works. In 1995, he was also commissioned to paint a portrait of Jean Chrétien.

Originally from Belgrade, Mitic studied fine arts in northern Serbia at the University of Novi Sad and served a mandatory stint in the Serbian army before moving to Toronto in 1990. He now lives here with his wife, Azusa, and their two children. The oldest, his son Ansel, is 4 and has already had a joint exhibition with his father.

Some of his work has triggered a backlash from art audiences. After exhibiting at Toronto's Trias Gallery last fall and doing a few media interviews, he says he started receiving angry responses.

"I got some phone calls, 'You asshole, how dare you,'" he says. "I just tell them it's just a painting."

But fellow artists have expressed appreciation for his work, including Charles Pachter, the Canadian contemporary artist often referred to as a "northern Warhol."

Pachter says he particularly enjoys one of Mitic's arms-free works, entitled Screw Stephen Harper in which the artist used 1,500 screws to create a likeness of our prime minister.

"Some of it is smartass, some of it is mischievous, but that's art too," Pachter says. "He definitely knows how to push paint around."

But whether or not Mitic's bullet art is good art, Pachter adds, remains to be seen. He warns that there's a distinction between innovation and shock art, and work like Mitic's often risks becoming the latter.

"Sometimes he's right on and sometimes he's not. But he's playing around with pop images," Pachter says. "Every once in a while he comes up with something I think is pointed. But is he brilliantly talented? I can't say yet."

But Pachter did recommend Mitic to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick this year, which was seeking contemporary portraits of the gallery's founder for its 50th anniversary celebration.

Mitic proposed a portrait of Lord Beaverbrook called Blasted Beaverbrook and curator Terry Graff chose it for the gallery's permanent collection. It will hang this fall alongside two other Beaverbrook portraits by Pachter and John Boyle.

As for Mitic, he recognizes his work might be too outré for everyone's liking. But he stands by his method as a legitimate way of creating art with some punch.

"It sounds like something that somebody who needs attention would do but it is a very interesting process," he says. "I don't want people to be angry; I want them to react."