As an art student at Northern Illinois University, Michael Banicki found himself overwhelmed by his new knowledge: seeking a way “to organize it all in my head,” he says, he began a group of 12 drawings called Artists’ Won-Lost Record. Each rated 20 artists on 30 different criteria. “A lot of the criteria were absurd,” Banicki says, but he was reading Albert Camus at the time, “so I was really interested in absurdism.” Some categories were unsurprising: color choice, texture. But one category was “the sound of the name–if it was a French name, I preferred it,” he says. Another was the artist’s fame: “The more acclaim, the less I liked him.”

Banicki knew his ratings were unfair–many of the artists he’d seen only in reproduction, for example. But his assessment was also truthful, reflecting his knowledge and tastes at the time.

In his current paintings Banicki rates things like early train lines, moths, German cities, Negro League ballplayers. One piece compares Canadian provinces. Ratings are indicated by colored boxes, which are translated in a legend at the bottom. Though Banicki’s ratings are generally based on some knowledge, it’s not always firsthand. He rated Newfoundland poorly though he’d never been there because “it seemed so very desolate and inaccessible.” But in Quebec Cities Rating, remote Chibougamau does well–“that’s a great-sounding name.”

One of his largest pieces consists of 1,000 black-and-white photos of Chicago storefronts, each accompanied by a small multicolored band indicating its rating; among the criteria are the design, the store’s name, and the quality of the photograph. Banicki first conceived of the work while observing a store about to change hands. He loved its original “folk-artish” painted sign; when he returned, the store was renamed “Hair We Are Again.” He sees Chicago Storefront Rating as portraying “a decay and slow withering away. . . . Money comes in, tears down the store, puts up a strip mall.”

Banicki’s works carry an implied disclaimer: any thoughtful viewer should recognize “the absurdity of pitting a town against another with no list of criteria,” or the ridiculousness of comparing painters from entirely different periods. “But if there’s a Watteau show at the Art Institute and Delaunay’s at the MCA and you have only one hour,” Banicki says, “you have to make that same choice that I did.” Banicki’s works are on view at Feigen Incorporated, 742 N. Wells, through November 12. Gallery hours are 10-6 Tuesday through Friday and 11-6 Saturday. Call 787-0500 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.