Painted in 2003, Country Nurse is one of the largest works created for Richard Prince's highly coveted Nurse series in which the artist's characteristic use of appropriated imagery has been used as a foundation layer for richly expressive paintings. For this series, Prince has mined his extensive collection of trashy romance novels from the 1950s and 1960s, lifting the protagonists and titles from their lurid covers and immersing them in layers of pigment. The sultry nurse with bedroom eyes and the just-visible title featured in Country Nurse are taken directly from the cover of the eponymous book by Maud McCurdy Welch, the author of many such steamy, dime-store love stories. The pocket-sized book cover has been dramatically expanded to a heroic scale, completely transforming the viewer's encounter with the fictional world emblematised therein. Whilst Prince pays homage to the original nurse novel cover design, preserving its vintage feel, the composition also provides a stage for his own powerfully gestural painting. The cool hues of the original book cover have been replaced by a heated field of orange and dripping red and white pigments that activate the illustrative underlayer with the artist's personal touch. This combination unites Prince's low-culture leanings with the techniques most frequently associated with traditional fine art, suggesting a desire to razz the high-minded, macho painterliness of the exalted post-war action painters, whose familiar methods have presented him with another aspect of popular culture open to expropriation. Indeed, Prince's interventions have imbued the image with a sense of impending crisis reminiscent of a thriller movie, a feeling of anticipation that is further set on edge by the shadowy figure of a man almost lost in the torrid haze of tangerine and ochre hues to the left.
The transference of the source material to canvas by inkjet printer adds an extra level of removal and manufacture to an already mass-produced image, with the Benday dots visible through the wash of paint clearly evoking Roy Lichtenstein's own transformative Pop appropriations. Prince goes a step further than Lichtenstein, however, by directly employing the mechanized production techniques of the mass media rather than replicating the effect by hand. The amalgamation of this digital process with manually applied materials nevertheless underlines Prince's intention of creating a unique image, even as he continues to test the bounds of authorship. The self-consciously sensual overlay of pigment that has been applied to Country Nurse is offset by its deliberately over-the-top chromatic range and aggressive application, which smothers any sense of preciousness or 'prettiness'.
Like most romance novel illustrations, Country Nurse depicts a key moment of the plot development, yet Prince has selectively obscured most of the original image, including the précis, which reads: 'The story of Cathy, who found the transition from country to city a step in the right direction'. In doing so, Prince leaves the protagonist hovering in an ambiguous space that no longer retains its narrative moorings. We cannot help, looking at Country Nurse, but seek out clues and read in our own meanings to the mystery of the soap opera-like plot of which this frozen moment is a fragment. In spite of her isolation, the nurse represented in Prince's painting is made to be a far more complex figure than the predictable heroines of the novels he has appropriated. Much like Prince's rugged Marlboro men, these nurses are pastiches of the real thing. They are an archetype of femininity and all that implies as well as eroticized objects of male desire that he has selected to both exaggerate and undermine the most hackneyed emblems of gender identity. The addition of the surgical mask, an important leitmotif for the series, compounds Country Nurse's status as stereotype, wiping out what little individualized features she has in order to create a generic emblem of a feminine ideal. By gagging these heroines in this way, Prince not only disrupts communication, but also reinforces a sense of forbidden or constrained sensuality that epitomizes a cultural fixation with women as mysterious and alluring, both innocent and vamp. Yet, there is always a level of irony to Prince's work and his exploration of the naughty-nurse myth dovetails neatly with his longstanding fascination with image constructs and their power.
The Nurse paintings share many of the aspects that have characterised Prince's work over the years, despite their distinctive painterly aesthetic. His fondness for genre-fication is clearly evident in the series, which found their origins in the process of gathering images and objects together into sets. This zeal for collecting is described by Prince as 'part obsession, part quest and part fantasy' in his 2003 artist's book American English, indicating the integral role it plays in his art. His collecting habits can be seen as a form of cultural anthropology, and much like his photographic appropriation of the advertisements that seduce us, this specific category of obscure hospital fiction harnesses the constant repetition of acts that create cultural cliché's. In this way, the nostalgia-tinged imagery of Country Nurse acts to successfully expose the mechanisms that establish societal conventions, prompting questions as to what lies behind the mask of these typecast personalities.