ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mad’s magazine’s old “Spy Vs. Spy” cartoons tattoo Earl McBride’s forearm, framed by the snake that was his father’s nickname.
McBride’s journey to professional artist has been fraught with enough roadblocks and booby traps to foil the most astute of foreign agents.
But the University of New Mexico MFA graduate recently finished a show at the Richard Levy Gallery and nailed artist-in-residence and teaching appointments with both the New Mexico School for the Arts and the Harwood Art Center. His work ‘The Audacity of Existing” hangs in the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s “Because It’s Time: Unraveling Race and Place in New Mexico” exhibition. The exhibit runs through Jan. 28.
McBride’s paintings reveal the influence of Mad cartoonist Don Martin, white cotton, black tar, Sunday whites, gospel music and Boy George tangled within the turbulence of transition.
McBride grew up as “Debbie.” After undergoing medical treatment in 2015, he transitioned to Earl in honor of the first letter in both his father’s and his grandfather’s names.
The artist’s paintings are largely abstract with a few recognizable symbols, letters and creatures thrown in. Their palette casts vivid colors sometimes piled on top of each other after he scrapes the canvas, reapplying the results in thick, gluttonous layers. Peaks or points signify his coming out and gender reassignment. Sometimes they form stars; at other times they climb into mountain ranges.
Multiple mediums, including oil, acrylic, spray paint, grease pencils, markers and even gold dust pop up in his oeuvre as he transforms wooden panels into fields of discordant colors and shapes, wrestling them into shape-shifting submission.
The artist spent many years working in galleries before formally studying painting and drawing at UNM. Fourteen years ago, he moved to New Mexico from Los Angeles for the fresh air and ample studio space.
“It’s expressive,” he said of his hybrid style. “It could be a little abstract expressionist; I hope it’s a little past that. I’m kind of an emotional painter.
“I feel like I had to have some form of audience to exist as a trans person,” he said. “It’s about being human; there’s a lot of excess there. There’s sort of a collision.
“I start with a mark, and then I react to that.”
The careful viewer will spot bats, letters and even a flying squirrel or two in his work.
“We used to throw pine cones up in the air for the bats to catch,” he said of his Georgia childhood. “To me, they look like puppies with wings of antique furniture.”
McBride moved from small-town Georgia to LA’s Otis College of Art and Design when he was still unsure about his sexuality.
“I painted in secret,” he said. “I think I was insecure about who I was – ‘He’s just a stupid painter from Georgia.’ ”
Today, he ties two of his home states together in “New Mexico Surf,” an amalgam of the Land of Enchantment and California.
“Maybe the background is the desert,” he said. “It’s got a little bit of New Mexico turquoise mixed with California ocean blue.”
His future as an artist emerged early. In elementary school, he sucked the juice out of wax stick candy, melted the wax and turned them into little sculptures.
“They were creatures,” he said. “They were beings I was making for company. I spent a lot of time by myself.”
It’s difficult to think of him as a minimalist, but he proves his former style by showing old paintings with abundant white space.
His more exuberant mashups seemed ugly to him.
“I thought the real me wasn’t cool,” he added.
It wasn’t until he reached UNM that a moment of clarity showed him his path.
“I just started trusting myself,” he said. “I was living my whole life on the inside; the real me was invisible.”