'Keep on runnin' in the dark
Dude ranch dream is fallin' apart _
Stolen kisses let's pretend my friend _
You play sick and I will mend _
Let the action begin again my friend _
You be patient and I'll attend __
Let's rehearse let's do it again _
Dude ranch nurse your brand new friend'
Sonic Youth, Dude Ranch Nurse, 2004
Richard Prince's Dude Ranch Nurse #2 is an early example from his recent series of highly coveted Nurse paintings that debuted to the public in 2003. In these works, Prince has mined his extensive collection of pulp romance novels from the 1950s and 1960s, lifting the protagonists and titles from their lurid covers and immersing them in layers of blurred and dripping paint that selectively obscures the original design. Prince's predilection for trawling through second-hand bookshops has resulted in an eclectic collection of printed materials that range from titles on film noir and modern literature, to letters, manuscripts, and publicity pictures, which he constantly plunders for images and ideas. In an alcove fittingly concealed behind a curtain made of beer-cans, Prince has set aside a special place in this vast library for his naughty-nurse literature, whose titles include such 'classics' as Surfing Nurse, Man-Crazy Nurse, Intimate Nurse, Tender Nurse, and Nympho Nurse.
The coy blonde nurse and curling typeface featured in Dude Ranch Nurse #2 are taken directly from the cover of the book by Arlene Hale, the author of many such steamy, dime-store love stories. As with all his nurse paintings, Prince dramatically expands the pocketbook-size book cover to a heroic scale, completely transforming the viewer's encounter with the fictional world emblematised therein. Like most illustrations on seedy romance novels, Dude Ranch Nurse depicts a moment of climax or crises, yet Prince has erased various parts of the image, including the picturesque Rocky-mountain landscape that forms the locus of the story, leaving the protagonist hovering in an ambiguous space that no longer retains its narrative moorings. 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. 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 painterliness of the exalted post-war action painters, whose familiar methods have presented him with another aspect of popular culture open to appropriation.
The transference of the source material to canvas by inkjet printer adds an extra level of removal and manufacture to this already mass-produced image, with the Benday dots visible under the wash of the 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 underline Prince's the intention of creating a unique image. The sensual overlay of paint that has been applied to Dude Ranch Nurse #2 is offset by its deliberately over-the-top chromatic range and aggressive application, which smothers any sense of preciousness or 'prettiness'. Indeed, Prince's painterly interventions have imbued the image with a sense of b-movie dread, a feeling of anticipation set on edge by the shadowy figure of a man almost lost in the torrid haze of paint, which implies oozing blood as much as the heat of passion. This sense of sense of mystery and soap opera-like drama has been further explored in the eponymous song by art-rockers Sonic Youth, friends of Prince, whose album Sonic Nurse was inspired by the tales of purity and corruption implied in his paintings.
Prince has confessed that of all the early nurse paintings, Dude Ranch Nurse #2 'is probably one of the top three' (Prince quoted in B. Appel, Richard Prince: Interview with Brian Appel, Rove TV, on http://www.rovetv.net/pr-interview.html). This is perhaps in part due to the fact the title brings his preoccupation with nurses together with his fascination with cowboys. Like his rugged Marlboro men, the nurses are pastiches of the real thing - icons of desire and fantasy that he subverts to both exaggerate and undermine the most hackneyed emblems of gender identity. The addition of the nurse's surgical mask, an important leitmotif for the series, compounds their status as stereotypes, wiping out what little individualized features they have to create generic figures of a feminine ideal. By gagging these heroines in this way, Prince reinforces 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 often met with heated anger and protest in certain corners, 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 mythical naughty-nurse stereotype dovetails neatly with his longstanding fascination with image constructs and their power.
The Nurse paintings share many of the aspects that have characterised his work over the years, despite their distinctive painterly aesthetic. Prince's 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. Indeed, much of Prince's work is about collating, editing and cataloguing things according to their subject matter. His collecting habits can be seen as a form of cultural anthropology, which he channels into his art in order to illuminate the folkways and stereotypes of American subcultures. 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 Dude Ranch Nurse #2 acts to successfully expose the mechanisms that establish societal conventions, prompting questions as to what lies behind the mask of these typecast personalities.