In this review Ewan Whyte explores how the “bullet paintings” of artist Viktor Mitic transgress boundaries of what is acceptable in art by revealing the possibility of aesthetic beauty in the violence of everyday life.
Above image: Blasted Guernica, a 25-foot painting by Viktor Mitic (Materials: acrylic paint, canvas, bullets)
The deliberate destruction of the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan1The statues were carved into the cliffs along the silk road in the Hazarajat valley of central Afghanistan in the sixth century. The smaller one was made in 504 C.E. and was 37 metres or 121 feet tall. The larger one was made in 554 C.E. and was 55 metres or 180 feet tall. by religious extremists in central Afghanistan in 2001 inspired Viktor Mitic to say: “It is incredibly shocking that people would destroy something of that significance, something which is one of a kind in the world, which means so much to others. It’s like tearing out part of someone else’s heart.” At that moment he wondered, could the process work in reverse: “Can guns ever be used to create something beautiful?” In the bullet paintings of Viktor Mitic, the visual art world is presented with guns as tools for the creation of works of art.
Guns, aside from being the weapon of choice for combatants in every modern war, are represented everywhere in popular culture and have become the overwhelming symbol of the power of life and death.
Roland Barthes compared the automobile in the mid-twentieth century as the “creation of its age” to the way the cathedral dominated the European imagination in medieval France. In that era, whole villages, towns and cities would join together to build local churches and cathedrals. Medieval France spent a greater percentage of its wealth to create cathedrals than the United States did in the 1960s to put a man on the moon.2Source?
For us now, it is the gun that is the creation of our age. They are everywhere. (The research firm Hoovers estimates the annual domestic firearms industry to be 6 billion dollars with an additional 9.8 billion in wages paid to workers in the industry in 2012). The US government estimates there to be 310 million guns in the US. Similarly the gun, the car, and the cathedral are all creations of almost entirely anonymous artists.
The act of shooting a painting may appear excessively violent or even obsessive. Its psychological impact is intense, especially when the shooting is so professionally done. Viktor Mitic shoots his paintings from close range, with a hard surface behind the canvas to get a small, even, perfectly rounded bullet-hole effect. By hanging the painting some distance from a hard surface and shooting it with a shotgun, he creates larger, sprayed holes to achieve a sort of “loose brush” effect with bullets. His gunshot paintings are carried out with what can be described as industrial speed.
However, there is a sense of harmony in the closure, or linking of spaces, between the bullet holes and the burn marks they make. There is a feeling of a boundary being permanently crossed by these acts of “violent” creation and the effects are significant. Viktor Mitic’s bullet paintings remind us that so much in ordinary, daily life is controlled or sublimated violence, and that this too can give birth to significant aesthetic experience.
May 03 Redux is a revisiting of Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 and re-presents that painting with brighter colours, loose detail, and bullet holes. The Third of May, 1808, or The Executions on Principe Pio Hill, represents a historical event during the Peninsular War3The Peninsular War pitted France against the combined forces of Spain, Britain, and Portugal. It was fought between 1807 and 1814 in the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. when every Spanish man caught with a weapon during an insurrection against Napoleonic forces occupying Madrid was executed. Goya completed this painting not as an immediate compassionate reaction to these events but as an official state commission six years later after Napoleon’s final defeat. It is not a historically accurate painting, which is one of the reasons it is so good.
Mitic’s May 03 Redux takes this historical painting a few steps further than someone of Goya’s time could have hoped to. In Mitic’s work, the composition is roughly the same, but the hill behind the condemned and executed figures is painted a solid blue with several of the soldiers’ uniforms painted in variations of the same blue. One of the executing soldiers wears the exact same shade of red as the shirts of two of the people being executed and of the man waiting for execution at the side with his hands covering his face. The artist is stating, among other things, that this is the brutality of life itself, and as interchangeable humans this is what we do to each other. The blues give an eerily calming feel to the depiction of the violent act of execution. The small bullet holes outlining the hill and soldiers’ uniforms are compositionally balanced with the larger holes in and around those being executed. The colour of the monk’s robe matches the outline of the city, a reddish hue with gold-yellowish colours underneath. The colour has the appearance of very old paint and suggests the city and the monk have similar values. It also suggests that the population of the city is conservative like the monk and prefers the old order to the new distorted order that has become brutal and kills dispassionately. How obviously this relates to our time when we are still conditioned to rationalize away our humanity as an almost daily exercise.
Tarantino4Click here and flip through the Mitic catalogue Art or War to view this work. is a portrait of Quentin Tarantino, delightfully scored with bullet holes. This painting is immediately pleasing in its deliberately satirical approach. Tarantino’s films are a perfect example of a wallowing in the very violence the director claims to be satirizing. His presentation of graphic violence is not as emetic but as an existential simpleton’s understanding of Nietzsche’s “happiness of the knife.” Mitic’s bullet paintings are not an expression of “lust for the gun” but a creative display of lines and dots through colour that were made with a gun. The actual and potential effects of violence are more substantially felt by what is pointed to but unseen. This is something Hollywood film makers too often seem to misunderstand or simply ignore in favour of the box office.
A painting of the Jesus figure shot with bullet holes may be startling to some. To others, it may seem perfectly appropriate. The effect of the bullet holes showing through as white against the lighter blues of Hole Jesus creates a vibrant impression, reminiscent of a religious shroud. The yellow halo is a complementary colour to the blue, and the strength of the yellow-gold with flecks of red creates harmonious contrast. There is a patient, mystical feel to this work despite the bullet holes. It is exactly what an executed religious figure that pointed ceaselessly to the human dangers of “mimetic rivalry” would be: calm.
In McBang, the prospect of a famous fast food restaurant’s mascot being shot seems playful and vindicating for an adult audience, given the number of health problems some medical practitioners claim are brought on by a steady diet of such “Meals.”
Mao Tse Bang is a portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung painted with pig’s blood, and then shot along the outlines. Its effect is stunning. Chairman Mao was a leader of great political acumen who won the Chinese Civil War, and has been credited with the birth of the modern Chinese state. However, his socio-political programs, such as “The Great Leap Forward” and “The Cultural Revolution” caused severe suffering and harm to the people, culture, and economy of China, and he was responsible for the deaths of some forty million people. The painting speaks of the real cost of gaining and holding absolute political power.
Blasted Guernica is a revisiting of Picasso’s Guernica, a painting that depicts the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts on innocent people. Mitic’s interpretation is exactly the same monumental size as the original, but its colours are softer and more calming, moving toward the blues rather than the greys of the 1937 original. Its outlines are more pronounced by the bullet effects, which convey a feeling of the controlled terror of the original historical event, relate it to the original painting, and reflect the terror of our own time.
The provincial museum of New Brunswick commissioned Viktor Mitic to paint a portrait of Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, the founder and main patron of the museum. Mitic took into consideration the press baron’s influential life when he composed the painting. Aitken who was the son of a Scottish minister in rural New Brunswick became a press baron with some luck and timing. He was a shrewd, even crafty businessman with a mischievous streak of self-preservation to offset his philanthropy.
He avoided prosecution for securities fraud by moving to England in 1910 and, with the support of his acquired fortune, went into politics. He gained control of a failing newspaper and made it the largest daily in the U.K. He became instrumental during the Second World War, as Minister of Aircraft and later as Minister of Supply, and Winston Churchill said of him: “His personal force and genius made this Aitken’s finest hour.” Mitic’s portrait pays homage to the style of portrait painting in Lord Beaverbrook’s era, but Blasted Beaverbrook definitely belongs to our time. The commission and the painting are examples of a gallery searching for something very contemporary.
Much of Mitic’s artwork is remarkable in that it combines aesthetic art on the edge of the creative forces of destruction with performative aspects of creation where the presence of the artist is felt in the finished work. There are many examples of this in his bullet paintings where it is easy to feel the process of creation as well as the presence of the artist in the bullet. This presence is also felt in his acid rain paintings where we can see the elemental forces of nature that he deliberately subjects them to sealed in paint long after the storms and rain have gone. His work sometimes includes profoundly provocative images that push previous boundaries of what is acceptable in art.
Dallas, a painting of John F. Kennedy as the persona of the iconic and dignified U.S. president looking straight at us in front of an American flag, gives off the feeling of popular collective nostalgia.
It is subtly deceptive in that it evokes an image of the United States in the early nineteen sixties. Its visual rhetoric is so powerful it seems the evocation of that age for those born long after. This portrait is also about how outsiders view the United States. President Kennedy is painted with a very skilled hand. In its distracting aesthetic we hardly notice the small holes in the canvas made with hundreds of bullet holes from the same caliber gun that killed the president. The shooting through the canvas after Mitic painted it is also subtle, especially around the president’s face and head. The backdrop of the American flag is more sparsely shot through with bullet holes.
It’s a looking back at an imagined America, an America that never really existed outside its ideal, which is a kind of remembering persona of the particular paradisiacal ideal of its time. It is more akin to the imagination of poetry rather than to any sense of how people actually lived or even saw the world at the time.
A flag is one of the ultimate symbols of rhetoric. Even before the period of the nation state, we have died for flags or flag-like symbols. As symbols, flags are typically metaphoric of an idealized place, or nation, or time, depending on the historical situation and its relation to the kind of flag. It is an ultimate symbol that is metaphorical in the way it has been used to trump up courage to get people to die for it. It is a kind of violent poetry of propaganda. This emotionally intense iconography is fed by laws that charge individuals for destroying flags when protesting, for example. The fact that many people can agree with sending a person to jail for burning a flag is a testament to its rhetorical power.
This American flag as painted loosely by Mitic with blurring stars and small rough edges of blue behind a more finely detailed face of president Kennedy evokes a mimicking desire of connection to this imagined time. It is a nice touch that the flag is the whole background with nothing else to soften it.
At a glance Dallas represents the nostalgic memory of the pain the United States endured after the assassination of its president, the only one in living memory. It is also nostalgic in its literal sense in being the pain of returning home. It is an imaginary home. It never existed in the Camelot version, the one those born long after the tragic event are exposed to. Many people talk about their memories of JFK and, over the years, the subtleties of the memory of his public persona have changed as we have changed.
Film director Roman Polanski famously described changing the ending of his film Chinatown from happy to tragic. That a gangster achieves his desired and twisted result is distressing but somehow more in tune with how the rest of the world sees America. It is not how America sees itself. So with Mitic’s Dallas: how a European who loves the United States sees it. It has a subtlety of sadness and hope without the typical sanguine optimism we are used to seeing with American flags. It seems there is a real presence of the artist in the work in that the bullet holes bring an eerie reminder of death but also strangely of an idealized life.
Ewan Whyte is a writer and translator. His stories, poems, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, The Literary Review of Canada and Arc Poetry Magazine. His translation of the poetry of Catullus was published by Mosaic Press in 2010.