Nurses of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bizarre white masks
Richard Prince's "Nurse Paintings," an exhibition of 19 new works at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, is a campy 19-frame horror movie.
The pop-obsessed Prince, who according to the exhibition press release is an "ardent bibliophile," starts with the covers of mid-20th century pulp novels about nurses. He preserves the single, standing figure of a white-uniformed nurse and a large printing of the novel's title. Then he imbues most of the works with a sense of dread, from creeping to overwrought. White masks, looking vaguely surgical but really more like rough paint blobs, cover much of each nurse's face. Runny paint bleeds off different parts of the figures, which are surrounded by bold color, often variations of red--get it? In some cases, Prince goes so far as to locate the bloody mess at the nurses' mouths, eyes and/or groin areas. Parts of the original book cover backgrounds emerge in vague, often ominous forms. Of course, given the source images, there are no male nurses.
Thus, we get "Nympho Nurse," "Man Crazy Nurse, "Aloha Nurse," "Camp Nurse," Washington Nurse," "Tender Nurse," "Overseas Nurse," and the especially gory "Man Crazy Nurse #2." With luck, the next batch will include "Man Crazy Nurse #3: Freddy and Jason's NICU Smackdown."
Obviously, Prince is not on a mission from the soft-focus Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing's Future. And the artist could be accused of using regressive nurse iconography to score cheap pop art shock points. This possibility is especially troubling at a time when the profession is struggling to overcome a critical shortage fed by these same persistent stereotypes, with global health hanging in the balance. It is also no great challenge to find misogyny in these gory images of diminutively labeled women, though of course irony would likely be the first defense to that.
The exhibition press release doesn't exactly come to grips with any of this. It blithely suggests that the nurses "partake" in Prince's "game of irony," which reveals them to be "seductresses of a hypnotically fictional world" in which "something sinister lies within these emblems of caring and nurturing." However, the sinister element doesn't really seem so much to originate with the nurses as threaten them. The release's language also contains problematic assumptions about nurses ("seductresses," "nurturing"), as do blurbs for the exhibition in the local press, which toss off terms like "wholesome icon of femininity" with no apparent "game of irony."
And none of it reflects any awareness of the larger social or political ramifications of the imagery. Like the press blurbs, the release encourages the hip-eoisie to find this twisted vision of nurses funny, kinky, and maybe scary for a few moments. But it gives viewers no reason to take nurses themselves seriously, and some may feel that the exhibition doesn't either. As one blurb flippantly but persuasively explains the show's primal appeal: "We like the nurse--she's good."
Is it all a "game of irony?" Is Prince just having fun with oppositions--purity and corruption, sex and violence, schlock and "serious" art? Are the nurse pulp novels just a target-rich environment for another splashy frolic in the wake of the great Marcel Duchamp, master of jokey appropriation and questionable female imagery, and of course pop art exemplar Andy Warhol? If so, nurses can be forgiven if they aren't laughing.
However, whatever the publicity machine or even Prince himself may say, the nurse paintings stand alone. What they mean is an open question. It is not hard to see them as serious comments on the flawed world they reflect, both at the time of the pulp novels and today.
Obviously, the starchy whiteness of the traditional nurse attire contrasts with the bloody humanity nurses confront. But this is hardly novel, and the nun-influenced uniform actually was very much a reaction to the raw human aspects of the profession.
More interesting is the fact that the white-clad female nurses in these paintings are effectively gagged, they are literally defined by the large, aggressively ridiculous book titles, and they are alone in a world of scary shadows and blood, very possibly their own. Trapped in their oppressive clothes and our oppressive attitudes, the pulp nurses may reflect the continuing plight of nurses, and women generally. The blood spots on their bodies are stigmatas of caring.
The masks in particular point to critical problems today's nurses face, namely their invisibility and difficulty in speaking up for themselves. Nurses are poorly understood--as if hidden behind masks--but many feel they urgently need to shed them, to tell the world what they do and why it matters, to move, in Buresh and Gordon's phrase, "from silence to voice." In some of the paintings, the nurses' eyes burn out over the mask. This suggests real, sentient beings struggling to assert a genuine identity, and to overcome the obstacles placed in their way by the very society they are trying to save. Though it's unlikely Prince intended it, it's possible to see this exhibition as a harsh but constructive critique of nursing's invisibility and a call to action. As one veteran nurse noted in reaction to the paintings: "The masks are killing us."
More broadly, the works may raise questions about whether modern society and its mass media objectify and oppress all of us. Do they pacify us with "man crazy nurses" while the real world spins out of control? Can we overcome our own "uniforms?" Perhaps many of us today feel a little like unfairly maligned "nympho nurses," trying to evade the distorted and malevolent constructs that entrap us, threatening to drag us back into a past we thought we'd left behind.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Reviewed September 28, 2003
We rated Richard Prince's "Nurse Paintings" "good" for nursing because we felt that despite its irony and gore, the exhibit was a powerful representation of the state nursing is in today. Nurses are gagged and silent, whether through oppression by their employers, physicians, society, or self-silencing. Nurses remain victims of stereotypes, and unacceptable levels of violence. This exhibit should act as a wake up call and spur nurses to change the way things are. At the very least, it should provoke useful discussion of how society sees us.
We must increase public understanding of nursing or risk the decline of our profession. Let's all tell the media and the public our stories, as the nurses did in the October 2003 Reader's Digest article and Chaos in the October 2002 American Journal of Nursing. Also, see our take action page to find out more ways you can help end the nursing shortage by telling the world what nurses do.
While the Prince exhibit is not much of a recruiting ad, not all nurse-related art can or should be. We cannot solve the nursing shortage through recruiting ads alone. Examining the way things are is a necessary step in resolving problems. We view the Prince exhibit as a cold-water-in-the-face depiction of how we have been viewed and of our own deadly silence, both of which contribute to the nursing shortage, short-staffing and subsequent patient mortality. We do not view the exhibit as an endorsement of nurses' oppression.
While we appreciated Prince's depiction of the oppression of nurses, we did not give the exhibit a nursing rating of "excellent", because it does not tell the whole story about who nurses are, what they do, and why it matters. Nor does it help nurses paint a way forward from our invisibility, beyond what may be implied in the nurses' eyes. But we nurses have to do that for ourselves anyway.
Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Original review written on art show at:
Barbara Gladstone Gallery
515 West 24th Street
New York, NY
September 20 - October 25, 2003
Sept. 28, 2007 - Jan. 9, 2008
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.