With its garish, drippy palette and sexy, seductive protagonist, Overseas Nurse ranks as one of the very best of Richard Prince's series of Nurse Paintings. Set against a deliciously brushy colour field that radiates fuchsia light like a tropical sunset, the sultry yet vixen nurse, with platinum curls cascading down her shoulders, personifies the enigma of the entire series. Dating from 2002, Overseas Nurse comes from the original group with which Prince made a sell-out return to a painterly form of artistic expression when it was unveiled at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York later that year. Departing tangentially from the photographs that rocketed Prince to notoriety in the 1980s, in which he shamelessly pilfered the annals of consumer culture by directly lifting found images and reproducing them in a Fine Art context, this groundbreaking series witnessed the artist grappling more directly with issues specific to painting. Following his enormously successful retrospective last year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, this series has come to embody Prince's iconoclastic post-modern brilliance.
One of the largest works in the series, Overseas Nurse revisits with discernible maturity many of the themes that were present at the outset of Prince's career – the manipulation of appropriated images, the seductiveness of mass culture and the death of the author – in an entirely new, painterly syntax. For the nurses, Prince's source material is culled from the artist's extensive collection of 1960s racy paperback nurse fantasies, a sub-genre of pulp fiction. An obsessive bibliophile, Prince is renowned for his collection of first edition books. For Prince, these trashy titles exerted the same seductive power and potent allure as the highly polished images found in the daily onslaught of the media and advertising. The books' covers, designed to titillate and entice, to reveal only enough to grab the viewer's attention and arouse curiosity, provided Prince with a rich seam of cultural material to mine.
Taking as his protagonist the stereotype of the eroticised, uniformed nurse, the female counterpart to the macho cowboys of his earlier series, what attracted Prince to these masterpieces of commercial illustration is their standardised, schematised figures and unsubtle, crass titles that vocalise the formulaic narratives of the fiction. Predominantly written by women (or men under a pseudonym) for women, the vernacular 1950s and 1960s nurse fictions, with their improbable plots, mysterious encounters and taboo romances, offered easily digestible, 35-cents-escapism for a generation of women for whom Women's Lib was still a notional phenomenon. Even in the 1950s, nursing was one of the few professions deemed appropriate for a respectable woman and these novels projected the evolving desires of an entire generation. In Overseas Nurse, Prince takes as his source the eponymous novel by Jennifer Ames, a pseudonym for the Australian born novelist and popular press columnist Maysie Greig, who penned over 220 salacious novels in her lifetime, which she spent travelling the globe with her succession of four husbands. As the title of this, her first of three nurse novels, suggests, 'Overseas Nurse' pandered to the pent-up desire for travel exotic and far off countries, a lifestyle which the author herself enjoyed.
To create the Nurse Paintings, Prince first scanned, enlarged and transferred the book covers onto canvas using an ink jet print, which left an anonymous facture that was the hallmark of his earlier oeuvre. Unlike the early photographs, however, Prince adulterates the impersonal printed finish with his individual painterly brushstroke, ratcheting up the kitsch by smearing deep layers of garish, drippy, acrylic paint onto the smooth inkjet surfaces. The juicy colours of Overseas Nurse and its sensuously worked surface are unabashedly beautiful and irresistibly appealing. Layers of paint coalesce and bleed into one another. To the right edge, Prince mixes varnish with the oils to leave a lustring, semi-reflective glaze which emphasises the spontaneous – at times serendipitous – application. On the one hand a winking allusion to Mark Rothko and lyrical abstraction, the paint-splattered uniform of the seductive female nurse mimics the gestural fury of Willem de Kooning's women, a subject which has found a reprisal in Prince's most recent paintings. At once homage and parody, the result is a candy-store delight.
As the present work shows, Prince radically alters the narrative of the book's cover illustration. He keeps the neon pink colour and vintage font of alluring title, exaggerating its garishness by emblazoning the text in vivid, sunset orange. This adds a steamier, licentious dimension to the deliberately erotic allure of the cover, like the blinking neon of an unwholesome back street. Title aside, in Overseas Nurse all extraneous content is pushed back behind built-up layers of floating blocks of vivid colour. From below these swathes and seams of pigment – at times transluscent and pearlescent – tell-tale signs of the book's cover can be deciphered: a barely legible trace of the author's name and most enigmatically a hint of the strap-line "She had failed once – would she make the same mistake twice?" While revealing Prince's profound interest in the beauty of word as image, as already evinced in the monochrome joke paintings, here text is subordinate to the extraordinarily chromatic palette and gestural brushwork. Most strikingly, the vacant, daydreaming nurse of the book is replaced by the altogether more sexualised vamp of the painting. In her prim, starched uniform and nurse's cap she could be a hospital playmate. Slim, nubile and ravishing, she embodies all the trumped-up tropes of clichéd sexuality. Coy and demure, everything about her from her glossy 1950s hairstyle, her thick eyelashes and the delicate gesture of her hands is designed to exude sex appeal. Yet the transparent gauze that partially covers her mouth and the rivulets of crimson pigment that drip down her arms and pinafore are more suggestive of a femme-fatale. With the mouth obscured, it is very difficult to determine any precise emotion. Like Edouard Manet's female protagonists, she stares out of the canvas, engaging our space with a look which is part coquettish come-hither glint and part aggressive, threatening menace. Behind her a looming phallic shadow rises suggestively like the psychologically charged shadows in Edvard Munch's paintings. The male character of the book cover, the handsome doctor of her daydream who puts on his surgical gloves with a threatening determination, is obliterated without trace in Prince's version. It is the viewer, in his place, who is forced by Prince to adopt the role of the male-gendered participant in this frankly sexual exchange. Like the iconic figure of the barmaid in Manet's Bar at the Folies-bergère, the nurse – as much a stock sexualised figure of popular culture as the barmaid – becomes a cipher for femininity: accessible yet forbidden, available yet out of reach.
Richard Prince came of age as an artist in New York during the late 1970s, and was part of a generation that grew up in an environment dictated by a media-orientated consumer culture, the first generation to be weaned on glossy magazines and television, an informal, after school education which inevitably shaped their later image production. Prince's modus operandi in the early 1980s dramatically shook the art world by posing an outright challenge to received ideas about authorship and originality. In the traditional understanding of art, the author is the source of creation, a font of originality who brings images into being. Richard Prince, by contrast, was working against authorship by pirating images which deliberately eschewed artistic attribution. Prince recalls of the publicity images: "They were like these authorless pictures, too good to be true, art-directed and over-determined and pretty much like film stills, psychologically hyped-up and having nothing to do with the way art pictures were traditionally 'put' together" (Richard Prince, interviewed by Jeff Rian in Art In America, March, 1987).
Crucially, in Overseas Nurse, the name of the author is deliberately obfuscated behind self-consciously painterly swathes of layer upon layer of brilliantly electric hues. A complex game of authorship is at play here: these trite, banal novels, although each penned by individual authors, are borne of a collective consciousness, a matrix of generic, commonplace desires and fantasies projected and reflected by consumer culture, which the author merely panders to. Like the figures that populate advertising hoardings, the protagonists of this literary form are socio-sexual constructions that merely reflect the collective consumer conscience, our impulses and desires; like the earliest myths, they are the product not of an individual author but of a culture. In other words, in the Nurse Paintings, Prince displaces the author in a bid to tap into a form of shared, authorless, modern myth. In doing so, he exposes the void that lies in the spiritual heartland of American consumer society. Like a latter day flaneur, Prince identifies the most revealing aspects and impulses of our modern, consumer-driven psyche. Be they cowboys or nurses, they are the stereotypes that become cultural archetypes, reproduced by Prince in all their seductive splendour. In Overseas Nurse, the themes that permeate his earlier work reach fruition in an overtly painterly work that is all about the pursuit of pleasure: pleasure at moving paint around, pleasure at looking at luscious, sexually invested images and surfaces. In short: the pleasure of the consumer.
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