Set awash in steamy hues of flushed pink and smoky amethyst, the provocative and alluring Nurse Elsa is one of Richard Prince’s most sensual paintings, a beguiling, seductive work. Created in 2002, Nurse Elsa belongs to his highly celebrated series of Nurse paintings, and was featured in the now-legendary, 2003 exhibit at Barbara Gladstone Gallery where the paintings made their American debut. The painting displays a beautiful masked heroine, whose tenderly-rendered features are softened by subtle washes of color Prince luxuriates in the drips and gestural brushwork of his painterly technique. Typical to the series, the renowned bibliophile culled through his growing collection of dime-store novels and pulp fiction to select the source imagery for Nurse Elsa. In this case, Jeanne Bowman’s 1968 vintage romance novel Conflict for Nurse Elsa provided the source image. The title of the original novel is still visible along the painting’s upper register—complete with the typographical flourishes of its rather tawdry font—as if emerging from some shadowy dream. Dramatically enlarged to life-size, the heroine in Nurse Elsa takes on heroic proportions. Engulfed in the heady atmosphere of luscious flesh-hued paint, she accentuates the pent-up melodrama of the original dime-store novel that inspired it, though shrouded in mysterious intrigue.
Long a master of appropriation, Prince is adept at capturing the melodrama of his original source while conflating its imagery with archetypal notions of femininity and the underlying notions of sexuality and desire embodied therein. In Nurse Elsa, he retains the heroine’s original appearance, from the subtle features of her delicate, manicured fingers to the plunging v-neckline of her uniform. Her perfectly-coiffed hair is rendered in subtle shades of sandy blonde, while her facial features are mostly concealed behind a gauzy white mask. Her head turned slightly askew, she is presented before the viewer as if lost in dreamy reverie. The handsome doctor who stars as her leading man is barely visible beneath the pigment that Prince applies, lurking amid the painting’s lushly-applied background of deep lavender and light-pink tones. In this way, Prince’s depiction subtly conceals the identity of his heroine, adding to the mysterious allure that pervades the entire piece. By enlarging the canvas to heroic scale, Prince’s heroine becomes
larger-than-life, transcending her original dime-store role to become an emblematic symbol of desire.
While Prince appropriated the ready-made image of Bowman’s novel via inkjet print, he luxuriates in the use of paint in Nurse Elsa via soft washes of pigment that serve to both highlight and disguise the artwork of the original source. The resulting painting is atmospheric, softly erotic and altogether mysterious—as steamy as the drama that the original book describes. With an ironic nod toward the Abstract Expressionists’ love of gesture and brushstroke, Prince delights in the softly-applied swathes of fleshy pink and shadowy purples, while the pale white of the nurse’s uniform seems lit from within by some ethereal source. Perhaps inspired by the girlish sweetness of the original book’s typeface—with its gumball-pink lettering and exaggerated, curling serifs—Prince bathes the entire background in a soft pink haze. The pervading effect is heady and seductive, like the smoky interior of a dimly-lit bar or the colored smoke that accompanies a magician’s trick.
Along with the nurse’s hat that rests upon her head, the nurse’s surgical mask is the most obvious hint of the heroine’s persona. Indeed, Prince employs the white nurse’s mask as a key leitmotif throughout the series, which he employs to varying degrees of opacity. In Nurse Elsa, the mask has been confidently applied with a wide brush, rendered in several delicate washes of paint which he allows to drip down the canvas in thin rivulets. Ironically, Prince’s depiction serves to both erase and highlight the nurse’s features. Her heavily made-up eyes have been reduced to a smudge, while her open mouth and parted, red lips are still visible beneath the gauze of her mask—all of which contributes to the aura of mystery that pervades the painting. The remnants of her lips and her coy body-language imparts a contradictory message: is this woman vixen or saint? Caregiver or murderess? Indeed, the artist has remarked, “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?” (R. Prince, quoted in “A Conversation” in Damien Hirst: Requiem II, 2009).
In Nurse Elsa, rather than faithfully replicate a nurse’s surgical mask verbatim, which would typically shield her nose and mouth, Prince extends the nurse’s mask over the heroine’s eyes to create a complicated visual gesture in which the nurse’s features are concealed and her vision obscured. Such technique recalls his earlier work, most notably the seminal 1982-1984 series of photographs Fashion in which the gaze of female fashion models were obstructed via sunglasses, masks or other visual devices. Prince has acknowledged that while the mask is a natural extension of the nurse uniform, it also performs a duty similar to the black bars that used to be put over women’s faces in pornographic magazines to conceal their identities. He has described this technique as “a way of making it all the same and getting rid of the personality,” thereby leaving the viewer to construct their own narratives and libidinous fantasies (R. Prince, quoted in “Interview with Glenn O’Brien,” Interview Magazine, December-January 2008/2009, p. 201).
Since their inception, Prince’s Nurse paintings have long possessed a certain hushed eroticism, and Nurse Elsa is no exception. The veil-like nature of her surgical mask invites the viewer to peek underneath and to catch a glimpse of her ruby-red lips and sultry, passionate eyes. However, there is a forbidden quality that goes along with her persona: look, but don’t touch. Indeed, as in the artist’s most provocative work, Prince’s exploration of the “naughty nurse” myth dovetails neatly with his fascination with stereotypical portrayals of women and of image constructs and their power, which he has long explored. It is perhaps these contradictions, which continually add to the allure of the nurse paintings, that repeatedly makes them some of the most highly-coveted works of Contemporary Art. Indeed, Artforum critic David Rimanelli once described them as alternately “smart, cheap, expensive, snide,” in his 2003 review of the Nurses’ debut. Yet later that year, he included them in his “Best of” list: “these sumptuous canvases were a return to form” (D. Rimanelli, “Best of 2003,” Artforum, December 2003). Alternately derided and praised, the Nurse paintings remain one of the artist’s most profound series of which Nurse Elsa is a bewitching example; powerful and provocative, showcasing the artist at his best.