Ed Ruscha is primarily known as a painter of words. His uncanny ability to shift context and the intrinsic meaning of a single word or phrase in his paintings invites the viewer to impose their own meaning onto the work. A departure from his word paintings but nonetheless focused on signs, Ruscha's 1986 painting Mother Stumped presents a vibrant red silhouette of a woman with a quizzical question mark above her head. While set apart from his paintings with words, Mother Stumped offers a similar challenge for the viewer to discover the painting's hidden meaning, and entices them to respond to it in a completely new way.
Ruscha's now iconic paintings present brand names or places, like Standard Oil or the Los Angeles County Museum, in non sequitur circumstances which cause the viewer to rethink their own relationship to the image of the place or thing. Ruscha gravitates towards words and symbols whose, according to Yves Alain Bois, "life cycles can be very slow, moving at a glacial pace [compared to] man-made objects." (Y.A. Bois, quoted in U. Wilmes, "Once Upon a time in the Present," in E. Ruscha and J, Ellroy, Fifty Years of Painting, New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers, 2010, p. 46). By using words in his paintings, not only does he wish the viewer to insert their own cultural meaning onto the work, but also allows for a timelessness in the piece to develop, ensuring that his paintings remain culturally relevant for longer.
Mother Stumped possesses this timelessness by featuring the universal symbol for a female that defies cultural specificity. No matter what language you speak or where you come from, the silhouette of a woman resonates in the same way across borders, conjuring up the various roles a woman plays in society, from mother, to wife, to sex symbol. At first glance, the airbrushed neon red is both indicative of a stoplight in the pitch dark night, which denotes danger, while coupled with the sign of a female figure suggests a peep show, meaning desire. Without the title, the image immediately invokes thoughts of Los Angeles night life and the allure of the Sunset Strip. The viewer's preconceptions are denied, however, since upon further examination, neither the title nor the demurely-dressed figure evoke the sexual fantasy or nightlife image suggested by the neon sign. In this way, Mother Stumped is consistent with many of Ruscha's other works: he is able to pull the viewer in with allusions and suggestions of meaning but short circuits the standard meaning, instead completing it with contrary information.
At the time it was executed, Mother Stumped was a comment on both the glitzy yet slightly seedy nature of his Hollywood, as well as the Reagan administration's emphasis on family values, alluding to the darker side of the American dream. However, the painting's ability to surpass its historicity and still resonate with viewers today is a result of Ruscha's use of universal icons within his paintings. Ruscha successfully culls the icon from its historical specifiity and places it into the realm of painting. Ruscha analytically looks at a word, symbol or object as something that exists in the world, celebrating it for its objecthood, and capture it on the canvas.
Executed in 1986, this work will be included in a forthcoming volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper.