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“Completely Punk Rock”: Cindy Sherman’s (Nearly) Forgotten History with Babes in Toyland

“Cindy Sherman is totally, completely punk rock.” Lori Barbero has some credibility in making that assessment. Not only was she drummer of the late, great Minneapolis-based alt-rock band Babes in Toyland (1987-2001), but she and the band had deeper ties to Sherman. The artist’s photographs are on the covers of two Babes albums, her imagery […]

BITL twintone Fontanelle Painkillers

“Cindy Sherman is totally, completely punk rock.” Lori Barbero has some credibility in making that assessment. Not only was she drummer of the late, great Minneapolis-based alt-rock band Babes in Toyland (1987-2001), but she and the band had deeper ties to Sherman. The artist’s photographs are on the covers of two Babes albums, her imagery was featured on stage banners created to accompany the band on the road (revealed below for the first time in nearly two decades), and the artist herself had a cameo–as doppelganger of lead singer Kat Bjelland–in a music video made during the band’s heyday.

Cofounded by Barbero and Bjelland in 1987, Babes in Toyland quickly racked up critical and popular success: They were asked by legendary British DJ John Peel to record with him; they were invited by Thurston Moore to tour with Sonic Youth in Europe in 1990 and at the Reading Festival a year later; they played Lollapalooza and got on-air props from the eponymous characters on MTV’s Beavis & Butthead, to name a few. But before all that, they released their debut album, Spanking Machine (Twin/Tone, 1990), which hinted at the band’s Shermanesque interests. “On our very first record cover, we’re all laying on our backs with all these icky dolls all around us,” Barbero recalls. Presaging later covers that featured doll imagery by Sherman, the shot played off the band’s name, while capturing Barbero’s interest in dolls. “I never had dolls when I was a kid. I just felt they were creepy,” she said. “Now I think they’re creepy and cool.”

Babes In Toyland: Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, Maureen Herman

Babes in Toyland: Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, Michelle Leon (bassist 1987-1992). Photo: Pat Blashill

She shared that she used to collect broken doll parts–pieces of antique dolls, particularly the bisque arms and legs–so, naturally, her favorite photos by Sherman are ones where Sherman is using prosthetic body parts. But the covers of Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle (Reprise, 1992) and the EP Painkillers (Reprise, 1993) didn’t bear those images: they focused on dolls instead.

Barbero shared how the band met Sherman: “Tim Carr, who signed us to Reprise, is friends with all the New York City artists. He hooked us up with different artists.”

Barbero remembers meeting Vito Acconci in New York and Diamanda Galás coming to one of their gigs. She says she hung out with Robert Longo during a Babes tour stop in Paris. And Cindy Sherman would occasionally end up at their New York shows, including one Barbero recollected at CBGBs.

“She really liked us,” Barbero told me. “She came to see us  a few times, and I ended up hanging out with her at the end of the night. To be quite honest, I knew about her art, but after meeting her I really got into it.”

Through those conversations, an invitation came to visit Sherman’s SoHo studio to select artwork for use on album covers. “She opened a whole wall of drawers. I don’t know how many dozens we looked at,” she said. “I actually have six or eight photographs she gave me. She scribbled on the back, stuff like ‘This is a little too dark. I’d lighten it up,’ or whatever. Little notes.” Then, laughing, she added, “They’ve literally been in an envelope in a cupboard in my house until a year ago.”

Hand-painted Babes in Toyland stage banner based on Cindy Sherman's artwork. Photo courtesy Lori Barbero

Hand-painted Babes in Toyland stage banner based on Cindy Sherman’s artwork. Photo courtesy Lori Barbero

Equally hidden away were three stage banners that were based on Sherman’s cover photos. Sherman confirms that she gave the OK for the images to be hand-painted on a large stage banner and two scrims, but she states she never saw the final result. Few did: Barbero says the large size of the banners–somewhere around 25 x 40 feet for the largest–prohibited their use in winds above 5 mph, which is most days during outdoor concert season. “They stayed immaculate because they’re in this giant Anvil case,” she said. “That was ’92, and I just took them out two years ago.” (Barbero had enlisted her friend, Minneapolis gallerist Suzy Greenberg, to take a look at the artworks before Greenberg passed away in 2012.)

Stage scrims based on the Cindy Sherman photos on the Fontanelle and Painkillers album covers. Photo courtesy Lori Barbero

Stage scrims based on the Cindy Sherman photos on the Fontanelle and Painkillers album covers. Photo courtesy Lori Barbero

Sherman also appears in the video for the band’s 1991 single “Bruise Violet,” which, as Sherman herself reveals, includes footage shot in her old SoHo loft. In the video, Sherman and Bjelland wear matching white dresses and wigs, part of the “kinderwhore” aesthetic Bjelland is credited with creating. The video culminates with Bjelland choking Sherman’s character on a stairwell. The song and video have been interpreted as referencing the feud between Bjelland and Courtney Love, who was briefly a member of Babes in Toyland before going on to form the band Hole and popularizing the “kinderwhore” look. The song includes the lines, “You got your stories all twisted up in mine / You got this thing that follows me around.(Neither Bjelland nor Maureen Herman, Babes bassist from 1992 to 1996, responded to voicemail requests to discuss the band and its relationship with Sherman.)

Sherman was a natural during the video shoot, Barbero said. “Her just putting on the wig and looking like someone else, that’s what she does for living, so that was, to her, like making toast.”

Born in Minneapolis, Barbero left town in 2008–she’s now bartending and playing in various bands in Austin, Texas–so she won’t have the chance to see the Cindy Sherman exhibition in her hometown. But she still feels an affinity for the artist, and she suspects the feeling is mutual.

“That’s why I think all her walls were down, because I think she felt some kind of sisterhood,” she said. “Kindred spirits. I think that, just from observation, she thought it was cool that we didn’t get all dolled up. Kat was Kat, but you know, we is what we is. I think she was like that.”

The exhibition Cindy Sherman closes at the Walker on February 17, 2013.