Bathed in a sultry, tropical haze, Richard Prince’s Island Nurse is one of the more overtly erotic examples of his celebrated series of Nurse paintings. Featuring a slim, pretty, blonde nurse ensconced within the exotic beauty of a twilit tropical paradise, Island Nurse embodies all the heated romance of the dime-store novel that inspired it. Painted in 2002, Island Nurse belongs to the original group of Nurse paintings that were created in the early 2000s. It was exhibited along with a group of approximately eleven Nurse paintings when they made their European debut at the Sadie Coles HQ gallery in London in 2003. There, Island Nurse featured alongside other early Nurse paintings including Dude Ranch Nurse, Heartbreak Nurse, Danger Nurse and Aloha Nurse, making it a prime example of this highly sexualized, yet subtly subversive, body of work.
Blazing with the passionate colors of a tropical island sunset, Island Nurse epitomizes the hushed erotic undertones of the original tawdry novel that inspired it—a 1964 nurse romance of the same name by author Dorothy Daniels. “Should she take the step that would change the course of her life?” the novel beckons to its reader as on its cover, as our heroine, Diana Carvell, is illustrated in her white nurse’s uniform and cap. In the novel, the young nurse is compelled to forego her vision of a conventional life offered by her doctor-fiancée, in favor of a passionate love affair with a native island boy. “Was she strong enough to resist this brooding, mysterious young islander who was carefully guarding a secret?” the précis for the novel asks. The visual cues of her limp body and slightly parted lips on the cover of the original book suggests that no, she has surrendered, capitulating to her passion. The edges of her nurse’s uniform dissolve before our eyes, revealing the jungle-green skirt that connects her powerfully to her tropical surroundings—a return to the garden of Eden.
Island Nurse is a particularly heady painting, in which lush passages of magenta, smoky purple and touches of crimson work in tandem to evoke the steamy climate of a tropical paradise. The face of the young nurse is covered with a bright, white mask, and her slender body retains the crisp white uniform of her profession. The title of the original paperback that inspired the painting is left visible along the upper edge, which is covered in a subtle wash of a delicate, amber-tinged green. This produces a subtle glow that broadcasts the subject of the painting with the pale aura of a fizzling neon sign for or seedy roadside hotel. All remaining features of the original novel have been otherwise obliterated, covered in stunning waterfall washes of bright magenta-pink, areas of deep purple and crimson tinged with black. In these passages the viewer delights in the artist’s brushy, gestural handling of the paint, tracing the drips of thinned down pigment as they seep down the canvas in delicate streams. Prince has highlighted key features of the heroine’s appearance, brightening her hair with yellow, and adding bright white to her nurse’s uniform, which he goes over in vigorous strokes of white paint that stream down her luminous, almost translucent, body. In methodically painting over the details of the book’s cover, and veiling her features behind a mask, the artist creates a mysterious figure whose identity and purpose remains unknown. In this respect, Island Nurse transcends its original literary source to become an anonymous cypher, upon which the viewer’s own desires and fantasies are projected.
A self-confessed bibliophile, Richard Prince has amassed thousands of books in his home in Rensselaerville, New York, where he has set aside a hidden alcove dedicated to his collection of nurse novels. Fittingly concealed behind a curtain made of beer-cans, these paperback novels speak to the sexist portrayal of women in the 1950’s and ‘60s, though many were written by women themselves. Titles include such classics as Surfing Nurse, Man-Crazy Nurse, Surgical Nurse, Tender Nurse and Nympho Nurse, which the artist delved into for inspiration, scanning their lurid covers and covering them in sultry layers of paint that obscures most of the original design. After scanning the original cover, Prince mechanically transfers the image onto canvas, then paints out the background in brushy, gestural strokes. The washes of color are often rendered in smoky, passionate hues that ratchet up the erotic fervor of the original novel. Prince then cloaks each nurse behind a gauzy white surgical mask, which works to further obfuscate her identity. Scaled to heroic proportions, these female protagonists have no readily discernible biography or back-story, forcing the mind to shuffle through cliched paradigms that reach deep into the collective unconscious for preconceived notions of femininity, whether wholesome or lurid, in their reading.
In many ways, the Nurse paintings can be seen as a continuation of the of image appropriation strategies that Prince developed in the 1980s, while working alongside artists like Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger who became known as the Pictures Generation. These artists developed postmodern strategies that allowed them to expose the media’s role in defining aspects of gender and sexuality. Using a strategy of appropriation, in which he co-opted magazine photographs he found while working at Time/Life, Prince re-created new work by placing these images in a new, more critical, context. His created a series of black-and-white photographs that he appropriated from fashion magazines such as Vogue that featured female models whose vision had been obstructed with sunglasses and hoods. Titled simply Fashion, this important, early series evaluated how television, magazines and newspapers all contribute to creating their own version of a feminine ideal. The series that followed, from Cowboys to Girlfriends and Nurses, Prince continues to work from the same critical position, often courting controversy for his overtly erotic, though subtly critical, portrayals of women.
“Mr. Prince mines the ways that society has portrayed women and how women have seemed to want to be portrayed,” the New York Times reporter Randy Kennedy wrote in his article on Richard Prince in 2008. “His obsessions… toy... ambiguously and provocatively with sexism, exploitation and the conventions of pornography” (R. Kennedy, “Two Artists United by Devotion to Women,” New York Times, 23 December 2008, sec. C, p. 1). And yet, the artist simply re-configures that which has already been created, as the Nurse paintings simply reprise the tawdry pulp fiction paperbacks of an earlier era. In doing so, the artist holds up a mirror—seductively painted and beguilingly beautiful—that entrances the viewer into looking, and looking deeper, into their own secrets and desires.