Shout it out loud: Artist Gina Birch does post-punk girl art

the raincoats POP MTL

L’Ecole Des Beaux-Arts is pulsating with art and energy on Saturday as artists, students and punk rock enthusiasts come together to contemplate a very unique female experience. The Raincoats: Adventures art show, at the top a winding staircase, starts behind an ominous black curtain. Inside, a woman screams wildly.

Cautiously peeling open the curtain, I crash into the chest of a sheepish-looking young man. He apologizes and sails down the stairs to the lobby. God, what’s happening in there? Then I see her – the screamer – the frame focused tightly around her face, catching a moment of sheer anguish and vulnerability. The screams come in long, deep bursts, like mad howls. The audience of five, scattered awkwardly about the tiny room, stares helplessly.

When the screen splits in two, it’s the same girl – screaming wildly on one side, laughing hysterically on the other. Words like rioutous, chaotic, girly, sexual and unapologetic float over the screen, bringing the female experience of a different time and place into focus. She is at once a little girl, vulnerable and afraid, and a young woman with something important to say. The louder she screams, the louder she laughs, and so it goes for eight painfully intriguing minutes. But somehow, even when the film closes around its quiet end, I can’t help wondering if that girl is still screaming today.

“Scream” is one of Gina Birch’s first forays into cinema. It was filmed in 1978, a time when the punk rock wave, that had swamped the country in the early 70s, was evolving into a more reserved and experimental movement. The post-punk era was a unique time for women and, for Birch, it opened up a space for girls to do things they hadn’t done before.

Birch’s shoe paintings, dating from 1977-2011, and also on display at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts for POP Montreal, bring the stories of a female punk rocker to life through the shoes she wore at different times in her life. Through them, one can begin to understand what it meant for a woman to join the male-dominated party scene at London’s famous punk rock nightclub, The Roxy, or catch a glimpse of Birch’s personal and hyper-female experience of working in the “real world.” Her paintings cleverly turn the ordinary into an extraordinary and uniquely powerful storytelling tool.

Birch’s visual art simultaneously mirrors and feeds off her work as a musician. She and art school friend Ana da Silva started The Raincoats in 1977. And though Birch admits that in her youth she had no idea how to play her instrument or a gig, the band went on to enjoy huge success in the underground, post-punk scene of the time and become a major inspiration to the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s. It was the rawness and vulnerability and breaking of barriers that bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana hailed them for. Determination and inventiveness propelled them to the top of their game.

Birch has grown up since the early days of the post-punk scene, but certainly hasn’t lost the playfulness and wild female energy that fuelled her artistic career. Her art, whether through the raw wailing of her bass guitar, an extraordinary story through ordinary means, or the frightening power of a girl lost in a scream, brings to life a very unique and inspiring female experience of a different time and place.

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