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Uniting the sinister with the seductive, Nurse on Trial is a consummate example of one of Richard Prince’s most celebrated series of works. The American artist first begun using the image of the nurse as a subject in 2002, and since then these paintings have reached iconic status within the context of his wider body of work. They epitomize how, over the course of his distinguished career, Prince has astutely and often humorously used the appropriation of distinctively American subject matter as the foundation for a highly original and diverse oeuvre. Unafraid of being provocative, he plunders clichéd and mass-produced imagery, such as mail order catalogues, roadside advertisements, popular magazines, pulp fiction covers, and, most recently, instagram, reformulating them into innovative, subtly critical, works of art. In the Nurse series, Prince plays to the stereotypical image of the nurse within popular imagination by premising the paintings on the pulp fiction genre of romance novels set within a medical environment. Sharing the titles of these original books, such as Surf-Safari Nurse, Settlement Nurse, Dude-Ranch Nurse, Debutante Nurse, Nurse in Las Vegas and Nurse in Charge, these paintings combine popular commercial culture with the expressive ‘high-culture’ language of painting, and on the impressive scale associated with this most traditional of mediums. The Nurse paintings are individually entirely unique, but together have a seamless conceptual and visual cohesion. They have been exhibited widely across the globe, and several were selected to be a prominent part of Prince’s 2007 major museum exhibition, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which traveled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Serpentine Gallery in London.
In Nurse on Trial, Prince retains much of the quintessential mid-century graphic design of the original book jacket, while emphasizing the threatening undercurrent of the title and the isolation of the eponymous figure by reformulating the composition and rendering it in a particular painterly style. Removing any superfluous characters and text from the design, Prince sets the young nurse—depicted in bright, warm, orange-based tones—against an anonymous cold, dark green background. Her clothes and face are depicted in detail, particularly her eyes, with their distinctive 1960s style make-up, while the rest has become subsumed into an abstracted, shadowy void. It is deliberately painterly—individual brushstrokes can be seen—and the color shifts and fades unevenly around the crisp outline of the central figure. The title is made distinct from the rest of the painting through a thin red outline, which adds further subtle drama to the composition. Nurse on Trial represents an unlikely and playfully subversive confluence of two very different American artistic movements. There is the gestural, action-based style and emotive resonance found in abstract expressionist works, but there is also the powerful, less demanding, graphic allure of the vintage paperback. Taking this a step further, the painting can be said to be uniting two extremes of gender stereotypes: the macho, but intellectual, American painter and the seductive, femme fatale figure of the ‘naughty nurse’.
Prince is an avid collector, particularly of books, and has built up an extensive collection of pre-1970s romance novels featuring nurses. However, the Nurse paintings were initially conceived out of an aesthetic desire to portray a figure all in white, not necessarily out of a direct desire to focus on nurse imagery. It was only later, when he began to explore this idea further using his own library, that he soon realized the rich potential of the nurse as a subject, particularly as a way of investigating varying notions of identity. The white masks, for instance, became a way of adding depth to the image provided by the book covers. The masks, as he has put it, were a way of “making it all the same and getting rid of the personality” (R. Prince, Interview with G. O’Brien, Interview Magazine, December/January 2008-9, p. 201). He also came to realize, as the series progressed, that the nurse figure had an almost archetypal appeal to many people—he detected that they evoked an almost primeval sense of comfort and protection.
Speaking of the serendipitous beginnings of this popular series of paintings, Prince has recalled: “With the Nurse paintings, I believe I started out just reading the paper. It just occurred to me that everybody needed a nurse. I collect books—basically I’m a bibliophile—and I had collected these nurse books. There’s a whole genre and I’d had them for years. I wanted to do something just white; I wasn’t really interested in the figures so much. I was interested in writing down next to the figure what could happen to you; it became very depressing all the things that could happen, and I [ended up putting] it away. But before I put them away, I made a mistake painting all this white—this is when I say I get lucky. After I had wiped some off the painting, it looked like a mask on the nurse’s face and suddenly it was one of those moments. When I noticed that I realized that was going to be my contribution to the image, to put a mask on these various nurse illustrations. It was a way of unifying and also talking about identity. I had the first Nurse show in London and I remember picking up the newspaper and noticing people wearing these surgical masks because of SARS, and the paintings became a lot more real for me. I didn’t think that anybody would really actually like the Nurses or pay much attention to them. I wasn’t even sure I liked them in the beginning, but they seemed to hit some kind of nerve and it goes back to the fact that I do believe everybody needs a nurse” (R. Prince, quoted at http://www.russhmagazine.com/arts-music/artists/Artist-Profile-Richard-Prince, accessed September 2014).
Prince has never shied away from controversy surrounding the fetishization of the female nurse. To the contrary, he courts it, finding the contradictory emotions they inspire one of the most compelling characteristics of the subject. As part of the promotion for the inaugural exhibition of Nurse paintings at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2003 for instance, he chose to photograph the model Kate Moss in a shiny, white leather nurse’s uniform, hand on hip come hither look in her eye; in 2006 he published the pornographic book Naked Nurses. In a discussion with the artist Damien Hirst about the sexual stereotypes behind the nurse paintings, Prince made the point that: “Some people say the nurse paintings are all about desire—but isn’t that more to do with their proximity to life and death? Isn’t that why we find nurses sexy—because they embody this ultimate contradiction? You’re the artist, you can tell me. As kids we are interested in sex and death because we can never imagine either one ever happening to us” (R. Prince, quoted in “A Conversation” in Damien Hirst: Requiem II, 2009.) In both subject matter and execution therefore, Nurse on Trial is a rebellion. Blending painterly acumen with an innate understanding of the powerful effect of popular imagery, Prince has placed pop culture on the same footing as paintings that have attained canonical status, and taken a fantasy of heroism, comfort and sexual desire, and laced it with murderous intent and hidden danger. In doing so, he has created a strange, disconcerting image that is familiar despite being shrouded in mystery and a bold challenge for anyone that tries to resist its seductive charms.