The title character of Settlement Nurse joins a cast of unlikely art-world protagonists who populate Richard Prince's body of work, such as Marlboro men, biker chicks, celebrities and naughty nurses. Over the past three decades, Richard Prince has created works of art that appropriate distinctive elements of American mass culture - deliberately tending toward the low-brow and the pulpy - often deconstructing and celebrating them simultaneously. His lexicon of American imagery draws from sources such as mail-order catalogues, mass-market advertisements, magazines and pulp fiction covers. While his first breakthrough as an artist in the late 1970s involved using images from print advertisements in a startlingly direct way, by simply re-photographing them and claiming them as his own, in his recent series of Nurse paintings Prince employed appropriated book covers as a foundational layer in highly expressive paintings. Settlement Nurse exemplifies this process of combining found imagery with true painterly verve.
While working in the department of Time-Life that handled tear-sheets in the late 1970s, Prince became attracted to commercial images because 'they were over-determined. Psychologically hyped-up. Artificially defined' (Richard Prince, quoted in J. Rian & L. Sante, Richard Prince, 2003, p. 14). Attuned to the repetition of certain clich, the power of stereotypes, and their relation to consumer desire, Prince turned these conventions of representation back on the viewer. His Nurse paintings build on some of these notions as well, filtered through his sardonic stance towards his art, which is exemplified in his Joke paintings. As in the Nurse series, they play on the conventions of colour field painting, while also drawing additional complexity from their contrast with fragments of text.
An avowed bibliophile, Prince based his Nurse paintings on his extensive collection of pulp romance novels from the Fifties and Sixties. Prince's predilection for trawling through second-hand book shops has resulted in an eclectic collection of printed materials that range from titles on film noir and trash literature, to letters, manuscripts, and publicity pictures, which he documented through photographs in his 2003 artist's book American English. For his Nurse paintings, Prince used covers from novels in his collection, which he applied to the canvas using an ink jet print, and then painted over. Using either selected portions of the cover, or in some cases the entire cover design, Prince obscured various parts of the illustration with paint, leaving the image of the nurse hovering in an ambiguous space that no longer retains its narrative moorings. In Settlement Nurse, Prince creates a marked tension between the bold looming letters of the title, and the nurse who seems even more vulnerable in her isolated pose.
Prince clearly recognizes the potent graphic allure of vintage pulp novels, which are often able to entice their targeted audience using spare visual means and garishly eye-catching colours. Seductive mannequin-like women and mysterious men are repeated across covers, in an array of exotic locations and roles that offer the reader endless escapes into other worlds - from Dude Ranch Nurse to Jet Set Nurse. Nurses proved to be one of the most popular heroines for pulp fiction fetishisation, partly because they were relatable working-class figures, but also because of their inherent proximity to dire life-and-death situations. The fantasy of the nurse as a sexually available subject thrives on the duality of her being both an independent working woman out in the world, yet one who can be seen as occupying a subservient role. The fetishistic connotations of the nurse are epitomized in Prince's photograph of Kate Moss in a plastic nurse uniform, and in his book Naked Nurses. The covers of the nurse novels that Prince borrows from constantly offer the promise of salacious content, each proclaiming a new romantic entanglement that often hint at transgression against cultural strictures of the time (such as Man Crazy Nurse and Strange Nurse). The title of Settlement Nurse places its protagonist on the socio-economic fringe, suggesting that this young woman will confront potential instabilities of a down-and-out populace, which is tied to a romantic sense of volatility as well. As the cover of 1959 edition of Settlement Nurse proclaimed, 'Cindy learned there are medicines to cure almost everything - except love!'
By dramatically expanding the pocketbook-size book covers to a heroic scale, Prince completely transforms the viewer's encounter with the fictional world emblematised therein. His paintings pay homage to the original nurse novel cover designs, emphasizing their vintage feel, but they also provide a stage for his own powerfully gestural painting. Isolating the heroine of Settlement Nurse against a hazy field of electric pink and orange, Prince creates a charged atmosphere that has a palpable sense of mystery. This is further heightened by the important addition of the mask, which is a leitmotif in his nurse series. Prince draws on the ambiguity of the surgical mask, which simultaneously gags the heroines and turns them into potentially menacing masked bandits. It also compounds their status as stereotypes, wiping out what little individualized features they have, leaving only their enigmatic stare. In Prince's oeuvre, nurses occupy a place in the American landscape as the ultimate feminine counterpart to his photos of macho cowboys. While his Marlboro men are mythical icons of rugged self-reliant manhood, the nurses epitomize a cultural fixation with women as mysterious and alluring, both innocent and vamp.