- Richard Prince
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005
Richard Prince has endlessly scrutinised the cultural mores of America in his seditious yet taxonomic approach to art-making. At heart he is an editor of images, borrowing and transforming through juxtaposition and manipulation to re-contextualise the familiar and banal. The low-culture of the working classes has always been the heartland of Prince's practice; using archetypes of a typically late-twentieth-century brand of American popular culture – be it from the world of advertising, the bawdy jokes or cartoon funnies of newspapers and magazines, or the paperback world of pulp-fiction – Prince has found edification in its indigenous beauty.
In the present work an abyssal black ground starkly outlines Prince’s heroine, a character borrowed from the front cover of Arlene Hale’s 1960s novel, School Nurse. On the original cover – hand-painted by an anonymous pulp-artist – a sultry yet guarded nurse glances sideways as a mysterious man exits through a door behind her; set underneath this, the novel’s tagline reads: “Nurse Glenda had a past to hide and a future to seek”. Subsumed by a gesturally black background, this narrative teaser is erased, as is the saccharine baby-pink background and baby-blue title text, while Nurse Glenda’s assumed love interest is entirely absented in Prince’s modified scene. All that remains is a white chalkboard outline of the book’s title and an isolated and ambiguously bloodied female protagonist looming large in the foreground. Consistent with all of Prince’s Nurse paintings, our subject wears an obligatory white surgical mask, an intervention that, according to the artist was a “way of unifying” these paintings, whilst “also talking about identity” (Richard Prince cited in: Natalie Shukur, ‘Richard Prince,’ RusshMagazine, 2014, online resource). In this painting, however, her red and apparently bleeding mouth seeps through the mask's diaphanous gauze and onto her clinical whites, while a dull smear above her right eye and a dark clotted patch on her hair rouse the suspicion of foul play. Marilynesque yet tainted by gore, Prince’s nurse is a nefarious queen of the damned.
Is she victim or aggressor? Prince leaves this pointedly unclear, and in doing so conflates a catalogue of old-fashioned erotic nurse stereotypes – a construct that utterly permeated popular culture in the 1950s and 60s, serving inspiration for the series of 45-cent paperback nurse fantasies collected by Prince. In Prince’s pantheon, the nurse is simultaneously angel of mercy and Good Samaritan, as much innocent Girl Friday as she is femme fatale. Possessing an unsettling yet magnetic noir-quality, the Nurses are derived from the same countercultural, typically Princian, realm as the biker Girlfriends, while they find their pendent pieces in the iconic Cowboys via a comparable scrutiny of exaggerated gender constructs. Indeed, like the Cowboys, these works conjure a retinue of desire and mine prescribed and trumped-up tropes of male desire and female objectification. Following the very first group of Nurse paintings, executed in 2002, School Nurse belongs to the second opus in which Prince introduced streaming drips of crimson-red paint to the nurses’ mouths and crisp white uniforms. Depicting a blonde bombshell turned horror film leading-lady, School Nurse masterfully projects the polarity between desire and fear, vulnerability and violence, to the forefront of the artist’s appropriative agenda. Thwarting narrative constructs and authorial agency, Prince posits collective authorship as the means to confront and undo the codes of desire forged by consumer culture.
Prince is a bibliophile in the truest sense. A collector of rare editions, including everything from Nobakov’s Lolita through to early pulp-fiction and a wide range of memorabilia, Prince has amassed an extensive library that begins in 1949 with George Orwell’s 1984 and ends around this prophetic year. Covering the gamut of iconic twentieth-century literature and published matter, Prince has collected that which he feels a connection to, whether it be Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or a signed photograph of Debbie Harry; all of it, however, is rooted in Americana. Indeed, Prince’s compulsion to buy, collect, juxtapose, curate, and assemble all of the trappings of American popular culture lies at the very heart of his production, and particularly, the Nurse paintings. In 2000 Prince started using this collected matter directly in his work with the first Publicity assemblages; framed and mounted, these works consist of images collated around a central theme – often comprising autographed publicity photographs of pin-ups and movie stars. Very much related to Prince’s earlier series of Gangs in which a pictorial universe of counter-cultural factions encompassing magazine images of bikers and their girlfriends, monster truck enthusiasts, porn addicts, and muscle-car fetishists was presented with archival objectivity, the Publicities possess a discerning taxonomical quality and exhibit the ephemera of conspicuous consumption and the cult of consumerism in the guise of memorabilia trophies. Indeed, the Nurse paintings find their very origin in the Publicity works, specifically one that showcased a dozen romantic nurse paperbacks in a row.
Selected from Prince’s own archive, cover art from 1960s medical-romance novels was photographed, enlarged, and printed onto canvas, after which layers of bold acrylic paint were gesturally applied, concealing all extraneous details apart from the books’ titles and the figure of the central nurse protagonist. The addition of brushy swathes of acrylic paint and bold pigment introduced nuanced emphases that underline a sense of seductive, yet trashy, erotic appeal. The pictorial finesse of the original cover art is gone, and is instead replaced by smudged kohl-lined eyes, smeared red-lipstick mouths, and hairstyles that have lost their Monroe-esque curls. Nonetheless, Prince’s painterly turn is rife with allusions to the history of heroic American painting. In School Nurse, the paint-splattered face and uniform mimics the gestural fury of Willem de Kooning’s erotic, overbearing Women. Thus, as the desirability of the erotic subject in School Nurse is grounded by the seriousness of this Abstract Expressionist connotation, School Nurse is invested with gravitas and power as an image. In the same manner as de Kooning’s iconic paintings, the present work oscillates between the polarities of beauty and horror, desire and fear, negating any single interpretation. With one foot squarely planted in the realm of high art, the other rests comfortably in the empire of the banal; in this way, the present work shows Prince at his absolute finest.