Richard Prince thrives on paradox. In Lake Resort Nurse, he created an image filled with gesture, with direct, passionate brushstokes that speak of Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. And yet the titular nurse and the lettering above her are emphatically figurative; indeed, they are printed images, appropriated, scanned from book covers. Prince revels in creating tension between two extremely divergent visual languages, one from the canon of Post-War art, the other from pulp novels written to titillate. At the same time, he has united two gender stereotypes in an unlikely marriage: the macho Abstract Expressionist and the sexy nurse.
Prince, who formerly worked as a picture archivist and researcher, knows the ins and outs of the debris of our modern, media-saturated age. He also amassed a significant collection of books, including whole series of Nurse literature. These books, mainly printed during pulp fiction's apogee in the 1950s and 1960s, often involved the romantic and sexual adventures of the heroines. An idea of the plots can be ascertained merely by looking at some of the titles of Prince's own works: Man-Crazy Nurse, Park Avenue Nurse, Nympho Nurse and Nurses Dormitory. This cross section captures the strange extent to which these healers have been fetishized and sexualized in popular culture, becoming a modern embodiment of the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Prince himself cut to the heart of this strange relationship when he photographed Kate Moss dressed in a sexy, gleaming, easywipe nurse outfit, flagrantly exploiting the boundaries of cliché.
In exploring this degrading stereotype, Prince deliberately places himself in the role of the chauvinist, a position that he underscores by overpainting the work in a conspicuously gestural style, recalling the Abstract Expressionists. In painting the theme of woman in this manner, he clearly touches upon the legacy of Willem de Kooning, an artist to whom he has paid further questionable homage in a recent series of collaged pictures. Meanwhile the background, with its shimmering rectangular fields of color, evokes Mark Rothko. Prince deliberately united Rothko's legacy to pulp novels, and indeed to scanned, figurative images, indicating his own ambivalent position regarding these stereotypes. He plays the role of the male artist, but only to undermine it, to negate so many ideas and associations that have for so long been related to these concepts, these identities.
Just as he deliberately disrupted the old machismo of the Abstract Expressionists, so too the nurses in Prince's paintings are far more complex than those of the pulp novels which he appropriated. They are masked; the paint around them drips like blood, introducing an atmosphere reminiscent of thrillers or slasher flicks. The surgical mask that Prince superimposed on the face of this nurse both disguises and defaces. Is she the victim, or is she a sinister presence about to abuse the trust in her vocation, disregarding the Hippocratic Oath to slip someone a lethal injection as in so many movies?
Prince deliberately introduced these potential elements to play further with his viewer. We cannot help, looking at Lake Resort Nurse, but read in some context, seek out clues to the overarching plot of which this frozen, painted moment is a fragment. Prince toys with our natural expectations of a picture, introducing a process similar to his Joke Paintings. Prince cynically manipulates, like a puppeteer, viewers' reactions. The vigorous traces of overpainting in Lake Resort Nurse hint at expressionistic form that is undermined both by our knowledge of Prince himself, and by his foundational use of the printed image. For Prince too remains a masked and mysterious character; his opaque and inscrutable pictures serve as telling partial self-portraits.
Like the nurse, Prince remains hidden behind a mask. Everything is a cover. The book's (and the painting's) title has been almost rubbed out; despite deliberately appropriating the appearance, albeit oversized, of a book, Lake Resort Nurse lacks further pages or further information. Is Prince commenting on the infinite potential to convey such information? Or does he rather explore our expectations, demonstrating the way the modern viewer, steeped in consumerist imagery, looks with too little scrutiny at pictorial content, reading in subtext and content as a reflex reaction? Ultimately, Lake Resort Nurse repeatedly conceals rather than reveals the process upon which most pictures rely. It is both obstacle and obstacle course. Prince conceals, dodges and weaves, remaining a step ahead, just eluding our grasp and comprehension, luring the viewer further and further into his twisted world. And when we are in his clutches, he exposes the mechanics of painting. He also exposes how visual information is conveyed in general, be it in the gallery space or on advertising hoardings. This revelation is crucial to Prince, the subversive iconoclast. He has worked within the system of flawed and fallible signifiers so abused by the mass media to show the viewer how much these same systems ensnare and victimize us on a day-to-day day basis. Lake Resort Nurse tempts us, teases us, prompts our desire, but also helps remedy the ills of our modern, image-overloaded world.