Executed in 2002-2003, Lake Resort Nurse is an early example of Richard Prince’s now iconic examinations of popular fiction. Prior to this point, his art had been based on advertising photographs, or had involved words painted to form laconic jokes; however beginning in the early 2000s the artist began to combine these themes into a brand new body of work that contained both words and images. Prince, a well-known bibliophile, took as his inspiration the covers of the cheap romance novels that were often sold at supermarket checkouts in the 1950s and 1960s, tales of young women looking to meet and marry their perfect man. Lake Resort Nurse combines image and text on a rich painterly surface; the central character has been reimagined, and the title of the book has been appropriated and emblazoned across the top visible through the smeared layers of the artist’s paint. The acrylics that Prince has applied to the surface of Lake Resort Nurse thus become a veil of artistic intervention between the content—the words and the image of the nurse—and the viewer. Distinguished by its luscious surface, the sultry image of the masked nurse emerges through a haze of golden yellow hues and multicolored drips. Layers of painterly washes add depth to the ground, with the title of the book and the figure of the nurse emerging through these clouds of vibrant pigment. Presented in her white uniform and starched white hat, the female heroine plays to the now old-fashioned stereotype of the nurse as an “angel of mercy” sent to give comfort and offer solace to patients in their hour of need. Prince then disrupts this idea by obscuring her identity with a surgical mask and covering her pristine uniform in trickles of multicolored paint dripping down the entire length of her body. This combination of figuration and abstraction results in one of the most rich and complex surfaces of any of the Nurse paintings, an electric field packed with painterly depth and energy.
I do believe everybody needs a nurse.”
Much like Prince's images of the rugged Marlboro man in his Cowboy paintings, his nurses are pastiches of the real thing. They are an archetype of femininity and all that implies, in addition to being eroticized objects of male desire that he has selected to both exaggerate and undermine the most hackneyed emblems of gender identity. The addition of a surgical mask, something not included on the original book cover and, as such, an important leitmotif for the series, compounds Lake Resort Nurse’s status as a stereotype, wiping out what little individualized features she has in order to create a generic emblem of a feminine ideal. By gagging his heroines in this way, Prince not only disrupts communication, but also reinforces a sense of forbidden or constrained sensuality that epitomizes a cultural fixation with women as mysterious and alluring, both innocent and vamp. Yet, there is always a level of irony to Prince's work and his exploration of the naughty-nurse myth dovetails neatly with his longstanding fascination with image constructs and their power.
Richard 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 hidden danger.”
A self-confessed lover of books, Prince has amassed thousands of books in his home in upstate New York, where he has set aside a hidden alcove dedicated to his collection of nurse novels. These paperbacks speak to the sexist portrayal of women in the 1950s and ‘60s, though many were written by women themselves. After electronically scanning the original cover, Prince mechanically transfers the image onto canvas, then paints out the background in broad gestural strokes. The washes of color are often rendered in smoky atmospheric hues that ratchet up the erotic fervor of the original novel. 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.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).