Sometimes a "nurse" is just a nurse: Slate critic finds a little too much pleasure in Richard Prince's nurse-themed works
October 30, 2003 -- Today Slate published "The Pleasure Principle," art curator Mia Fineman's review of pop artist Richard Prince's photo of Kate Moss in a vinyl "nursing" uniform from the September W and his recently exhibited "Nurse Paintings," which consist of boldly colored, at times gory images and titles drawn from the artist's collection of mid-century naughty nurse pulp novels.
Fineman traces the evolution of Prince's mischievous appropriations since his start in the late 1970's. She ultimately suggests that his new nurse works are so "unabashedly beautiful and irresistibly appealing" that it effectively overrides their irony. Under this analysis, what may seem like "ironic appropriations meant to deconstruct a regressive stereotype" (the "naughty nurses") turn out to be more like frankly admiring appreciations of--heh heh--naughty nurses. Thus, Prince ends up with a kind of endorsement, whether consciously intended or not, of the stereotypical images on which he's ostensibly trained his popgun.
The review notes that real nurses have not been amused by Prince's work. Fineman quotes a letter to W about the Kate Moss photo explaining that no real nurse could work in Moss' outfit, then Fineman jokes about the letter writer's chagrin: "No sponge bath for you today, Mr. Prince!" We get it, but hope Fineman and her readers understand there's more to nursing than sponge baths. We'd suggest something like "No life-saving medication error interception for you today, Mr. Prince!" but we don't think anyone should even suggest nurses would provide less than excellent care simply because a patient did not appreciate them.
In any case, much of Fineman's critique of "Nurse Paintings" is persuasive. The Center shared her nagging discomfort that Prince might be having a little too much fun with these images of female stereotypes, heedless of the potentially serious consequences.
However, Fineman's analysis of the paintings' "luscious sexy surfaces" takes no account of the creeping dread and even horror that infuse works like "Man Crazy Nurse #2." In fact, the "strangers' bodily fluids" and "lingerie"-like surgical masks may be more than abstract expressions of Prince's "libido," but may instead signal a malevolent vision of what surrounds the "nurses"--to say nothing of nurses.
What Fineman seems to regard as mere "lipstick" strikes the Center more as an example of the nurses' bloody stigmatas of caring--especially when we also find blobs of red paint in their eyes and groin areas. This imagery might imply something insidious in the nurses themselves, as the show's press release seemed to suggest, or a commentary--intended or not--on the critical state of the nursing profession. One might even argue that the paintings suggest that pain is part of the nurses' pleasure, a troubling message indeed in the context of modern nursing. But to ignore it completely seems to us as missing the painting for the paint.