This review was originally published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet in 2010.
Dirty Baby is a strange creature of an art book. It’s a voluptous object, a tome the size of a box set of long-playing records that’s — like a record — divided into two sides labeled A and B. Both sides set poems by David Breskin opposite pictures by Ed Ruscha, with four accompanying discs including original music by Nels Cline and readings, by Breskin, of the poems. The press release from publisher Pretel is both accurate and misleading when it calls the project “rather muttish and raunchy; gloriously dirty.” Dirty Baby is indeed muttish and raunchy, but its dirtiness feels constrained and bitter rather than liberating or glorious.
As an independent body of work, Ruscha’s pictures are typically beautiful and wry. The images featured in Dirty Baby forgo the artist’s trademark blocks of words for lines obfuscated by rectangles. (The artist, we are informed, calls these “dumb blocks.”) On “Side B,” these blocks are front and center, positioned against shimmering colors; on “Side A,” they are positioned like captions in the corners of pictures dominated by shadows of ships, wolves, and other icons.
If you were left alone to contemplate these blanks, you might have some interesting thoughts. Unfortunately, the blanks are effectively filled by Breskin’s deliberately brutal language, presented in the poetic form of the Arabic ghazal (though written in English). Breskin’s strategy of dirtying his babies by filling them with references to the ephemera of pop culture and pop history is okay when his general themes are broad — as in Side A, “a time-lapse history of the Western world” — but when he takes on the Iraq war on Side B, it’s just tiresome. George W. Bush may be out of office, but we’re still in Iraq, and the profane frustration of Breskin’s poems is merely an echo of what hundreds of millions of people around the world have been feeling for the past decade. It’s not transporting or illuminating, it’s just dirty and repetitive — like swearing over spilt coffee.
Cline’s music is accomplished, but feels dutiful rather than engaging. The gradual, churning layers and textures of Side A could stand on their own, so why don’t they? Side B is a cacophony of buzzing, grating, and plunking: accomplished, but boring.
The presentation of two soundtracks (the poems and the music) for each side of the book leaves one wondering what one is supposed to do with Dirty Baby. Get two CD players and listen to both soundtracks simultaneously? Read the book, then listen to each disc? Play the music first while reading the book, then while listening to the poems? Of course, the answer is that you can do whatever you damn well please, and I’m sorry to report that what most pleases me is to shelve the whole behemoth. If you have $125 to drop on someone special this holiday season, and if that person is a big fan of any of the three artists involved, Dirty Baby would make an impressive gift. If you’re looking to invest in an art book for yourself, though, I’d recommend spending your money elsewhere.