TORONTO - Outside Toronto's Gallery Moos, amid sleek condos and bustling businesses, sits a car that looks like it came straight from a war zone. The windows are smashed in, the interior shredded, and its entire body is pockmarked with thousands of big bullet holes.
Step inside the gallery and the theme continues: the walls are filled with 15 vibrantly coloured paintings of famous images — from Jesus Christ to Paris Hilton and National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer — all outlined by blackened holes from rounds of ammunition.
Toronto artist Viktor Mitic painted, and pulled the trigger on, all the works and has put them into an "Art or War: Bullet Paintings" exhibition and coffee-table book that both launch Thursday at the gallery.
"I started conceiving the idea when I saw the destruction of a 1,500-year-old Buddhist sculpture in Afghanistan," Mitic, who was born in Belgrade, Serbia, and studied at the University of Toronto and in Europe, explained in an interview.
"One soldier just went in and put bombs underneath it and blew it up and the whole world watched the whole thing. Everybody was in shock but nobody reacted. We just watched it on TV, live."
Mitic was also inspired by YouTube videos of soldiers destroying and desecrating 12th-century frescoes in Kosovo during the Balkan wars.
"I thought that this would be an interesting concept for me to make the painting that would have a similar feeling brought to canvas, like, how close can you get to seeing something shot?" he said.
"How else are you going to wake people up? ... You've got to do something that's going to bring the public as close as possible to the actual danger of firearms. I work in art, so this is what I can do."
Mitic spent three years creating his "Art or War" collection, injecting the pieces with a pop-art feel similar to that of Andy Warhol's works. The firearms almost became like a paint brush, he said, as the burn marks and gun powder from the shots created a smoky effect akin to lead-pencil sketch strokes.
He chose his subjects by perusing images online. Mayer came to mind because "he's almost like pop-art icon of Canada and a very cool person," he said. "He's seen it and he sent me a note: 'Thank you for including me in this.'"
Mitic says he created the first couple of works in Ontario gun clubs, where he rented the firearms, but he was eventually kicked out because they told him it was illegal to shoot images of people.
He then went to gun clubs in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., to complete the rest of the works, using several different firearms and shooting from various distances.
For the car piece, he and a few friends shot at it for over six hours, using 3,000 rounds of ammunition, to make it look like it came from Afghanistan. He wanted Canadians to "see what people in other countries are surviving and seeing every day," he said.
"I've got to tell you, especially when I'm shooting at the iconic images, religious images, there's always this type of anxiety," he said, noting he had shot a gun before embarking on the project.
"First I had to fight with my own stuff, you know: 'OK, I'm shooting at Jesus. It's not supposed to be done.'"
Mitic has had solo and group shows of his works in Canada, Europe, the U.S. and Japan. But it was difficult for him to get these paintings exhibited because of their nature, he admitted.
"The artists love it, the art critics love the idea," he said, noting he's received emails from interested buyers in New York.
"The general public will say I'm just trying to make something provocative and think that I'm working against religion. There's nothing that I do that is against religion. This is purely art and it's for the sake of art.
"There's so much war going on right now and we're sitting here ... watching everything on TV while people in other parts of the world are dying and seeing scenes like this every day."
The show at the Moos Gallery is the first full exhibition of the works, although his bullet painting of Jesus Christ has been displayed at the Cathedral Church of St. James and the Trias Gallery in Toronto.
"Art or War," the book, contains images of the works as well as texts from 11 authors offering their thoughts on the pieces. It also has a DVD of Mitic making the works. Published by Tightrope Books, the book is available at the gallery and will soon hit stores in Toronto.
Gallery Moos owner Walter Moos says in his 51 years there, he's never seen an artist use guns to create art.
"In this case, I was really smitten. A bullet hit me!" he said jokingly.
"The paintings are extremely well executed ... and then if you analyze actually the bullet holes, you can see that this was done with an immense care to make a very powerful statement."