Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I mentioned in this space last week the dire financial situation of local sound artist Rick Gribenas's family as he was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma; yesterday morning, Rick passed away. I knew Rick as a friend, not as close as some, but close enough to have spent a good bit of time with him over the past five or so years since we first met. I offer this as a personal memory of Rick as a friend and an artist -- by no means comprehensive, and intentionally so, it's simply a recollection of the man and the impact he had on me and those around me.
I first encountered Rick when he was playing collaborative shows with a band, He Taught Me Lies, which a few friends of mine were in. HTML was a scrappy three-piece punk band that lasted from the early '00s until a year or two ago when one member moved out of town; their music, heartfelt and loud, was far from high art. Rick dealt with concepts of space and ideas of social interaction in his sound art. It wasn't a match most folks would have dreamt, a bleeping-blooping laptop artist with a cacophonous '90s-style emo core band. But it's precisely the type of work that characterized Rick: something outside the norm, performance in which his conceptual art perhaps interfered with the environment around it (a punk show) but the environment also pushed back against his art.
Setting up in dusty DIY performance spaces with a few sweaty guys playing fast songs about hating capitalism and the death penalty might have been risky for someone whose work gained notice in Artforum and at the Museum of Modern Art, but that wasn't of concern to Rick; these were his friends, and this was the kind of art he was making. If he was cognizant of the strange juxtaposition, he never let on. Hardcore was no less art -- or at least no less important -- to him than John Cage.
That -- more than his oeuvre, more than the scholarly work he leaves behind -- is the legacy that Rick Gribenas left for me. He, seemingly effortlessly, was what I've often hoped, and often have failed, to be: someone who can live up to his greatest artistic and intellectual potential yet not once come off as dismissive of work or interests less sophisticated. Rick had standards, as an artist, musician, and recording engineer, to be sure. I remember him arriving once at the house where I used to live, back in Pittsburgh for a visit while he lived in Chicago, and before he even set down his bags he was pointing out to us that the record player was out of calibration. He said it in such a bemused manner, like it was completely obvious, but to the rest of us, it was a problem that was barely audible. His ear was plenty well-trained, but I can't remember him ever having unkind words for another musician.
Rick's sounds were abstract and ranged from ambient to truly harsh (such as the noise he produced with Antennacle, his band with Bastard Noise's Eric Wood and Creation Is Crucifixion's Nathan Martin). He thrived on surprising his audience and, when given the chance, would place speakers in unexpected spots within the performance space so as to catch listeners off guard and garner in them a greater awareness of the space they were in. While some harsh noise artists take an interest in offending the audience and playing up their misery as part of their art, Rick never did -- his trip was contemplation, and the pleasant surprise.
At times his music betrayed frustration and disappointment with the world as it was. When Rick's father, a photographer with the armed forces, was about to leave for Afghanistan, Rick performed at a rock show, unleashing a piece that was cacophonous, hellish, a collage of some of the most evocative and terrifying sounds one can imagine. I told him at the time that it reminded me of the war montage in Godard's 2004 film Notre Musique -- perhaps showing my complete lack of tact in the face of someone who was about to see his father off to a war zone. But I stand by the assessment; the piece was chilling, understandably. Around the time his father returned last year, I saw Rick perform again, and after assuring us all that he would be playing something "kind of chill," he set loose a variation on the same piece, slightly subdued, but still piecing together all the horrors that surely inhabited his mind as he dealt with a parent facing the stresses and risks of wartime service.
Last fall, I remember attending a gallery opening for an exhibit at Pittsburgh Filmmakers that Rick and his collaborator from Chicago, Todd Mattei, had put together. Rick's installation involved sound, a video loop projected on one wall, and a small string of LED lights on the floor. It was, like much of Rick's art (visual or sound), slightly befuddling, but also whimsical -- complicated and conceptual, but aesthetically welcoming to the untrained mind (like my own). I recall telling Rick that I liked the LED lights, that they were "cute." I immediately remembered that I was talking to a critically acclaimed artist, and that "cute" was likely not his goal, really, so I began to fumble, noting that this is precisely why I don't write about art. Rick stroked his chin and said, quite genuinely, "Cute, eh? I'll accept cute."
It was a familiar sentiment he expressed to me -- the same one that came across when he gave a boyish chuckle as he noticed I wore a dress shirt with Dickies work pants to his wedding. What might seem gauche to some was to Rick, despite his innate aesthetic sensibilites and sense of style, cute, and funny. The recurring idea was simple: it's good to think a lot and to try hard at what interests you, but don’t forget to take it easy and enjoy yourself.
Rick leaves behind his wife, Charissa, and her adorable son, Jaden. They still could use financial support from whatever source they might find, as the costs of treatment have now been compounded by the costs of a funeral. As of right now, there's a benefit show planned to help them out at ModernFormations Gallery on April 11. If any changes arise, I'll post them here. It's still possible to donate to the family via Paypal here.
He also leaves behind a city full of young artists and musicians who he's touched with his art and his affable personality, and I hope that his combination of intellectual curiosity and personal warmth is a legacy that will take root in all of us who knew him. So long, friend.