The doors of a small gallery at Hollywood Space 15Twenty are closed. Through the windows, we can see a smattering of action inside. A few people are doing last minute prep work. Some others are checking out the art. The star of the night, Teebs, isn't there yet.
Mtendere Mandowa, better known as Teebs, is straddling the world of art and music. From nightclubs to music festivals, the 26-year old makes electronic music that is as consistently rhythmic as it is abstract. Thanks in part to the striking album covers that have marked his recent releases, his reputation as a visual artist is growing as well.
Outside of the gallery, a small crowd has gathered. Amongst them is a fan, 21-year-old Kamari Carter, clutching a Teebs record, Collections 01. It's the kind of limited edition release that has people heading to record stores again. Double vinyl, 180 grams a piece, is as much of a selling point as the stunning, gatefold sleeve. Carter is hoping to get this signed tonight. He points out some of the interesting elements of the cover art.
"His art feels really raw and it seems pretty ambitious," says Carter. "He kind of just goes with what he feels."
Teebs spent the past two years on this show, called "Ante Vos," with the final six months of it in full swing. There are over 400 pieces in the exhibition and 400 of those are his own. The remainder-- somewhere between 15 and 20 according to the artist-- came from friends. Flying Lotus, who releases Teeb's work through his label Brainfeeder, contributed to the show.
"Ante Vos" is the intersection of Teebs' art and music lives for more than just his choice of collaborators.
The day before "Ante Vos" opened, Teebs stretched up from a ladder as he hangs the works. At most, half of the show hang in place on white walls. The rest of the works are scattered across the gallery floor. The pieces are a uniform 12" x 12" the golden ratio of the album sleeve. They all began life as album covers. Before Teebs and friends took control of the sleeves, they were packaging for the sort of run-of-the-mill music releases that end up in discount bins. Aging soundtrack records, 1980s R&B albums and an assortment of Barbra Streisand titles were among the finds. Their dusty facades and frayed corners have since been obscured by layers of mixed media. Teebs worked with charcoal, gold leaf, spray and acrylic paints, oil pens and ink. There's collage in here too. The flowers that bloom from certain album sleeves are photos of items found at L.A.'s flower mart.
Teebs says that he likes to "destroy" the sleeves, leaving only faint remnants of the original design in place. He points to a piece on the wall. Teebs isn't sure what the original record was. It was one of his earliest efforts for the show and there's no visible indication of an artist or title left. There is, however, the profile of a woman peeping out from underneath an abstract mix of paint and gold leaf. "When you see what she's wearing, you lose track of what time this record came out," says Teebs.
With 400 album covers to reconfigure, Teebs worked on 50 at a time. Those segments of the show were then split into groups of 15, the amount that he could fit onto a table. He would apply one process to the group and then repeat. "It was like a weird, Warhol machine going on," says Teebs.
At the same time, Teebs was recording forthcoming album, "Estara." Doing double-duty was "chaotic" at first, he says. He arose at 7 a.m. to begin the music work. In the evening, when music production might disturb his neighbors, he took to art.
Teebs grew up primarily in Chino Hills and continues to reside in the San Bernardino County city. "It's a good place," he says, "very quiet." Out in the suburbs, Teebs could delve into his art without distractions. "It helps you find a voice," he says. "You're by yourself out there, so you just have to figure it out."
In his formative years, Teebs was a self-described "skate rat." He hit up spots in nearby Chino and Norco to find good places to ride his board. Teebs gravitated towards art early as well, but it was music where he first gained recognition.
He wasn't much for parties. One night, though, a friend convinced Teebs to head out to L.A. and check out Low End Theory. This was back in 2007, before the beat-heavy Wednesday night bash gained near-legendary status on the club circuit. Flying Lotus, now an acclaimed producer, was on stage with a PC laptop. It was unlike anything Teebs had experienced in a club setting. "This is a place where you can hide out and listen to really good music," he says, "not so much of a performance." The young music-lover headed back to the club week after week.
Teebs was an art student at Cal Poly Pomona. After two years, though, he left the university life. His father fell ill. At the same time, music became a bigger priority. Teebs was making his own beats now and a friend suggested that he apply for a spot in the prestigious, globe-trotting Red Bull Music Academy. Teebs was accepted as part of an elite group who participated in the 2008 session in Barcelona.
The artist still seems genuinely stunned that he made the cut. "I was a bedroom producer in Chino Hills, helping out with his dad, not really doing much besides drawing and not thinking that I was a musician in that sense," he says. He packed up and headed to Spain, ready to learn alongside an international group of producers, some of whom were already famous in their home countries. He took in lectures from high-profile artists. He played a 5 a.m. set inside a club. "I was freaking out, no one is going to be there at 5 a.m.," he recalls. Fortunately for Teebs, Barcelona is different from Los Angeles, where bars shut down hours earlier. "The party just starts around that time," he says.
Red Bull Music Academy was a turning point for Teebs. "I wasn't signed to any label, wasn't trying to put music out, wasn't trying to get signed to any label," he says. "I didn't register the idea of music as a career choice." He returned to the States inspired. Art and music were both a part of his life, but music was taking precedence.
"I had a feeling that I'm doing something with this product," he says about his musical output. "People are enjoying this and taking it in."
Teebs worked out most of what would be his debut album. He moved to the San Fernando Valley briefly, setting up a base inside an artist-friendly apartment building in Northridge, and finished recording. He went from attending Low End Theory, to performing at the club. By 2010, "Ardour," Teebs' debut full-length, was a reality.
Art was never out of Teebs' life. He paints his album covers. He has sold his work as prints and other merchandise items through his online shop. He participated in a few gallery shows. One was in Hong Kong. His last show before the one at Space 15Twenty was in 2012 at Hollywood gallery HVW8.
Inside the gallery, the day before the show, Teebs says that he likes to make the album covers function as "gateways." The arch of a doorway serves as a motif throughout the show. Teebs is inviting the music people into his art world and vice versa. The following evening, when the gallery opened its doors, the fans accepted his invitation.
Top Image: "Ante Vos" opening at Space 15Twenty | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.
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