"Deep in the piney woods country near the famous Okeefeenokee Swamp was Harmony Grove, carved out of the woods by a Harmon over a century before. Now it was a vast industrial empire, dominated by the widowed and matriarchal Kate Harmon and managed by her sons. Nurse Jill Barclay went there to care for Kate, recuperating from a fall. But she soon found that Kate's injury was the least of her problems" (quoted in G. Craig, Piney Woods Nurse, New York, 1961).
Notions of nurturing, servitude, care-giving and sterilization are twisted and fetishized in Richard Prince's twenty-first century series of nurse paintings. These frightening images of young, female nurses continue the artist's tradition of appropriating images from popular culture, blending highbrow and lowbrow art. While the original images appear dull and commonplace in their original settings, they become freed, enhanced and energized in Prince's new context of an altered world that celebrates the underbelly of America. A contemporary master of the "series," Richard Prince aptly captures his themes and mediations on life and art by focusing on a concept and stretching and bending the original subject matter's limitations.
In Piney Woods Nurse, the viewer can discern little about the scandals that may occur deep inside the thicket of the forest, the digitalized forms of the piney woods emerging from the painted canvas referenced at the lower right of the nurse's foot. A dark, unidentified shadow of a figure lurks in the background-- it is unclear if he is threatening or running scared. Indeed, with her placid gaze and the glowing pinkish hue that creates a hallow surrounding her body, it is the nurse herself, standing tall in the midst of the dripping blood, who appears calm and collected, a seductress of a nostalgic and fictional landscape.
The nurse stands in the foreground, white-hot against a darkened red background. Not more than twenty-five years old, she confronts the viewer directly with her cool gaze and luscious eyelashes. Her neat, trim figure stands upright as she clutches possessively at her satchel. Her standard nursing uniform of white dress, cap and medical mask is not overtly sexual compared to the slick vinyl nursing uniforms Prince worked with while photographing Kate Moss. Yet, there is no denying the strong erotic undertones: her covered mouth, shapely hips and gorgeous face, which holds an equal mix of pleasure and surprise. Against the dark, abstract background, she casts a supernatural, ethereal glow.
The images of nurses, taken from the artist's own extensive collection of 1950s and 1960s pulp fiction paperbacks, honor mid-twentieth century American book illustration and appear freshly retro to today's viewer. Richard Prince is a bibliophile, trolling and rummaging through used bookstores from Los Angeles to Bridgehampton. For Prince, the thrill of collecting, of discovering and obtaining a vintage volume, becomes part of the artistic process. This love of books explains Prince's mischievous delight in elevating his collection of kitsch to (in)formal portraiture.
To create Piney Woods Nurse, Prince departs from his earlier process of using photographs and stenciling. He first scans the image and text of the cover into a computer before enlarging and transferring the work onto a canvas using an ink jet print. Prince then applies deep layers of acrylic paint to the surface. Like Prince's earlier images that depict Americana archetypes, there is an element of anonymity in the process; however, Piney Woods Nurse presents a different approach for the artist than his earlier canvases of cartoons, which mimic the cartoonist's drawing style of swirls and loops. Here, Prince is focused particularly on painting. In the present work's drippy, brushy, painterly style the artist self-consciously explores Abstract Expressionism's techniques, calling to mind the surfaces of Sam Francis and Jackson Pollock. Its richly hued backgrounds reference the color-field canvases of Mark Rothko. Indeed, the artist seems to be playing with our own expectations of the history of painting, demanding and challenging the viewer to reconsider the entire trajectory of Post-War art. He further blends the boundaries of photography and portraiture, much like Gerhard Richter's images of nurses, exploiting the spectrum between realistic and abstracted portraits.
The typeface and kitschy subject matter are at once present and completely transformed. There is no healthy, coquettishly innocent interaction between nurse and patient nor is there interplay between the pleasantly peaceful green woodlands and campsites. Piney Woods Nurse plays on the viewer's fears of the menacing things that nurses do to patients behind sterile hospital curtains and in claustrophobic white-walled rooms, to say nothing of the unforeseen dangers lurking in the woods.
By appropriating archetypal images -- cowboys, nurses, motorcyclists -- from past Americana, and adding to and altering their meaning through new mediums, Prince creates entirely new and innovative artwork. In the present work, however, Prince is as much a portraitist as an appropriationist. The cover illustrations themselves superficially resemble art simply because they were designed and printed to exist as visual matter. More than fifty years later, the transformed image becomes a thing of true beauty and longing, bringing together the artist's own idiosyncratic cataloguing of, and nostalgia for, pop culture ephemera. Richard Prince's images are visually commonplace, we are able to immediately process their meaning and associate them with our own experiences, and that makes their transformation that much more haunting and alluring.