Richard Prince's Very Private Nurse #1 belongs to the recent series of highly coveted Nurse paintings that debuted to the public in 2003. In these works, the artist's characteristic use of appropriated imagery has been employed as the foundation layer for his new-found interest in highly expressive painting. The buxom, larger-than-life matron who confronts us in this image is lifted directly from the steamy 1967 paperback, Cindy: Very Private Nurse by Toni Remington, which forms part of Prince's extensive collection of trashy romance novels from the 1950s and 1960s and which is no doubt a reference to his long-time artist friend and early collaborator in the appropriation art movement, Cindy Sherman. The cover has been scanned, expanded and printed onto canvas before becoming immersed in layers of sensuously worked pigment in heated hues. This process unites Prince's low-culture leanings with the techniques most frequently associated with traditional fine art and allows him to take both physical and aesthetic possession of the things he's interested in. In this way, Very Private Nurse #1 represents the pursuit of pleasure, with the lush colours and fluid overpainting creating a surface as seductive and sexy as the naughty nurses he pays tribute to.
Unlike most of Prince's Nurse paintings, in which he typically applies an abstracted surgical mask across the mouth and nose of the women depicted, Very Private Nurse #1 has almost her entire face obscured by a haze of dripping white paint. The heavily made-up bedroom eyes of the protagonist have been entirely erased, with only a titillating hint of her lipstick stained mouth left seeping through the veil of pigment. With her tilted head and thrusting bosom, this intimately framed nurse suggests a come hither attitude, which her plunging cleavage and seductively gaping uniform only serves to underline. Yet, despite these signals, the all-obscuring mask renders her expression completely unreadable. The motivation of this character is clearly portrayed on the cover of the vintage sleaze novel from whence she has been plucked but Prince has rendered her face as a kind of Rorschach test that might be interpreted in a number of ways. The remnants of her pouted mouth and her coy body-language could at once be read as inviting or downright sinister. Prince has acknowledged that while the masks are a natural extension of the nurse uniform, they also perform a duty similar to the black bars that used to be put over women's faces in porn magazines when they didn't want to be identified. He has described this obscuring of the face as 'a way of making it all the same and getting rid of the personality', thereby leaving the viewer to construct their own narratives and libidinous fantasies (Richard Prince, Interview with Glenn O'Brien, Interview Magazine, December/January 2008-9, p. 201).
Prince's various versions of femininity have continued to play with fire throughout his career. From his early re-photographed image of a young and disturbingly sexualised Brooke Shields in Spiritual America, to the biker-chick Girlfriends' and deliberately vulgar reinventions of Willem De Kooning's Women paintings, his work has often touched on the dark and complex permutations of desire. The addition of the surgical mask, an important leitmotif for the Nurse series is designed to compound Very Private Nurse's status as stereotype, wiping out what little individualized features she has to create a generic emblem of a feminine ideal. By gagging the nurse heroines in this way, Prince not only disrupts communication, but also appears to reinforce a sense of forbidden or constrained sensuality that epitomizes a cultural fixation with women as mysterious and alluring, both innocent and vamp. Consequently, Prince's exhibitions of the Nurse paintings have occasionally met with heated anger and protest by people who have been offended at what they perceive is an outmoded view of nurses and nursing. Yet, there is always a level of irony to Prince's work and his exploration of the nympho-nurse fable dovetails neatly with his longstanding fascination with image constructs and their power.
Like the cowboys that Prince co-opted from Marlboro cigarette advertisements, these nurses are pastiches of the real thing - an archetype of femininity and all that implies as well as eroticized objects of male desire. The Madison Avenue myth of rugged individualism and manliness displayed by the rough-riding cowboys meets its match in the voluptuous, fetishized nurse who stands ready to serve her patient's every need. In borrowing this artificially constructed model, Prince's fixation serves to both exaggerate and undermine the most hackneyed emblems of gender identity.
The Nurse paintings share many of the aspects that have characterized 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. Indeed, much of Prince's work is determined by his interest in collating, editing and cataloguing things according to their subject matter. These collecting habits can be seen as a form of cultural anthropology, which Prince channels into his art in order to illuminate the folkways and stereotypes of Western culture. 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. The nostalgia-tinged imagery of Very Private Nurse therefore acts to successfully expose the mechanisms that establish societal conventions, prompting questions as to what really lies behind the mask of such typecast personalities.