Arts & Culture » Art Review

Is Dots All There Is?




at the State of Illinois Art Gallery

By painting charts that illustrate his own private rating systems, Michael Banicki emphasizes the subjective nature of all so-called objective forms of evaluation. At first glance, the visual repetition of Banicki's charts makes this show seem bland and emotionless. We recall the boredom of looking through statistical tables, graphs, or lists in other situations, and a curtain of mental resistance comes crashing down. Luckily, the artist's tasteful color combinations persuade us to take a closer look, and soon we're drawn into his systems.

As we move from picture to picture observing how he rates items in a variety of categories, we begin to contemplate the hierarchical nature of similar systems. This in turn opens up a Pandora's box of social, political, and philosophical speculation: Who decides which is "best" or "worst"? Why do they decide it? What are the criteria? By provoking such questions, Banicki's work reminds us of the manipulative aspect of all supposedly rational and impartial systems.

Most of these acrylics on canvas feature neat rows of color-coded dots, which fill a grid centrally placed on a larger white background. An alphabetized list, handwritten in pencil, runs down the grid's left side. The same list of items reappears along the top of the grid. A color key near the bottom of each canvas assigns a rating to each color--Banicki usually limits himself to four or five colors per work. Lighter shades represent a "+" or "+ +" rating, while darker shades carry a "-" or "- -" meaning. Most items receive a fairly even distribution of dot colors, seeming to indicate an overall neutral response.

But something unexpected happens when the item is rated strongly positively or negatively. Take Spice/Herb Rating, for instance. Reading from left to right, "camomile" is followed by a row consisting almost entirely of yellow dots--this chart's most positive rating. Locating the same herb at the top of the grid and reading the accompanying dots downward, however, we find that camomile receives almost completely negative scores. Such self-contradictory data is illogical--in a computer system, it would be impossible. Banicki's use of conflicting ratings reminds us that, despite our reliance on computers for information and no matter how many seemingly objective models we may invent, we are a changeable and irrational species.

The artist rates subjects in categories ranging from Napoleon's marshals to current rock bands, but he has a predilection for geographical sites. A brochure informs us that he likes to travel to these sites himself--which offers a clue to the diagonal line of dots painted in a noncoded color that cuts across most works from bottom left to top right. A recent road trip of my own helped explain the source of this enigmatic shape: a similar line runs across the mileage charts found in road atlases, a line formed by the empty coordinates that result when locations on the "start" axis are the same as those on the "destination" axis. These empty spots depict a sort of geographical vacuum--they're a visible representation of nothingness. (Artists often describe their creative explorations as a search for the invisible space between visible elements.)

In both mileage charts and Banicki's works, the diagonal bisects the grid into two triangles that are mirror images of each other in terms of color placement. In the paintings, for instance, a black dot in a particular area of the upper triangle will appear as a white dot in the corresponding spot on the lower triangle. The colored areas of mileage charts display the same relationship. In Banicki's system the diagonal becomes a tantalizing conundrum: it separates opposites by remaining neutral, yet visually it defines emptiness.

In connection with Banicki's evaluations, the diagonal takes on a certain philosophical resonance. It connects the lowest grid segment to the highest. It also connects the last item on the left-side list (always a "Z" word) to the first item on the grid's top-side list (always an "A" word). So another paradoxical aspect of the diagonal is that it accomplishes a kind of yin-yang union of opposites. When coupled with the notion of rating things, the diagonal reminds us that today's "best" could be tomorrow's "worst." In Hollywood parlance, "One day you're hot; the next day you're not."

Reading a Banicki chart requires the viewer to stand very close to the piece. When seen from a distance, however, the penciled information fades and the charts begin to resemble plaid fabric. This visual transformation suggests an association between big business, which uses charts and graphs to project sales and track profits, and the American tradition of the con--the carpetbagger or flimflam man, the guy in the ill-fitting plaid suit who'd like to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge at a cut-rate price. These plaids also recall contemporary geometric abstraction painting. Is the artist accusing this style of scamming the public into believing it is important art? Or is he critiquing the whole art world, whose subjective selection of artwork is based on the profit goals or career aspirations of dealers, collectors, curators, critics, and so on rather than on the merit of the work itself?

The most arresting aspect of Banicki's approach is its compulsiveness. How he rates Pops Foster, bee balm, or Canadice Lake is unimportant compared to his obsession with recording his judgments in the form of thousands of rigorously organized dots. This compulsion is the understandable outgrowth of a more generalized attitude that seems peculiarly American. As a technological giant with a comparatively short history, our culture is attracted to systematic methods of evaluation. From the elaborate tables and graphs of business, science, and government to Siskel and Ebert's thumbs up or down, we have a penchant for thinking in quick, formulaic terms; after all, time is money.

It can be no accident, then, that the one time Banicki forgoes his dot system is in a triptych of handsome paintings that list American Indian tribes. The flat backgrounds are painted in a red ochre, and white horizontal strips of various widths, placed in a vertical row, form an abstract design that runs down the center of each canvas. In the middle of each strip is penciled in the name of a tribe. The title, "Read Arrows" Native American Tribes Rating, is misleading--the tribes are not actually rated. Or rather, the key at the bottom of each piece is marked with a plus sign at both ends. The fact that Banicki doesn't rate the tribes in his usual way conveys an interesting duality: on one hand, not fitting the tribes into the artist's usual reductive scheme is a way of showing respect for the richness and variety of tribal heritage. But on the other, it illustrates the American Indian's outsider status, surrounded by but excluded from a powerful culture.

Michael Banicki's paintings are like mandalas of American culture. What appear to be neatly organized charts can be transformed into fabric designs, abstract paintings, street maps, computer printouts, and even the side of a Rubik's Cube. They can be interpreted as social critique, mystic philosophy, or private obsession. Both simple and complex, they can be understood in a variety of ways. And that's a characteristic that rates pretty highly in my system.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy of Feature.

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