Pittsburgh lost a promising young artist and teacher last week when Rick Gribenas -- a visual and sound artist, and former exhibit coordinator at Carnegie Mellon's Miller Gallery -- died at age 31, of Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Gribenas, a Greensburg native, lived most of his adult life in Pittsburgh, exhibiting and playing music at spaces including Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Future Tenant and Space. The Edinboro University of Pennsylvania graduate, who received his MFA from the University of Illinois -- Chicago in 2006, also exhibited frequently in Chicago, and was featured in galleries internationally.
Rick was a friend and mentor to me. I met him when he was playing collaborative shows with He Taught Me Lies, a scrappy three-piece punk band which included friends of mine. HTML's music, heartfelt and loud, was far from high art. But if Rick recognized the juxtaposition was strange, he never let on. For him, hardcore was no less art -- or at least no less important -- than was John Cage.
In his own sound art, Rick dealt with concepts of space and ideas of social interaction. It wasn't a match most folks would have dreamt up, but it was precisely the type of work that characterized Rick. It was performance outside the norm, in which his conceptual art perhaps interfered with its environment, but in which the environment also pushed back against his art.
Setting up in dusty DIY 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, but that didn't concern Rick. These were his friends, and this was the kind of art he was making.
That, even more than the music or scholarly work he leaves behind, is Rick's legacy for me. He was, seemingly effortlessly, what many of us hope, yet often fail, to be: someone who can live up to his artistic and intellectual potential yet never come off as dismissive of less sophisticated work.
Rick's sounds were abstract and ranged from ambient to truly harsh. He thrived on surprising his audience, sometimes by placing speakers in unexpected spots so as to catch listeners off guard, deepening their awareness of the space they occupied. While some noise artists consider offending the audience part of their art, Rick never did. His trip was contemplation, and the pleasant surprise.
The recurring idea in my interactions with him 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 Gribenas leaves behind his wife, Charissa Hamilton-Gribenas, and stepson, Jaden Sopko. He is also survived by a city full of young artists and musicians whom he touched with his art and his affable personality. I hope his combination of intellectual curiosity and personal warmth will take root in all who knew him.
Rick's family experienced great financial difficulty in the waning days of his treatment, and with his funeral. A benefit concert, which will double as a celebration of his life, takes place Sat., April 11, at ModernFormations Gallery. The family has also requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.