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Artist values freedom over $$

Richard Raxlen is successful, influential, but not exactly rich

It isn't surprising that the title of a retrospective of Richard Raxlen's works that opens Friday at Open Space is Introspective, punctuated by typographic symbols, rather than the more commonly used term.

"A retrospective is looking back superficially and introspective is looking inward," says the avantgarde media artist whose wordplay reflects his reputation as filmmaker, animator and visual artist who happily works out of the mainstream.

"Unfortunately, or fortunately, my age starts to be perceived as a boon or a visual cue to what has transpired. So people will say, 'Here's four decades of work.' It's both off-putting and rewarding."

Since Raxlen, 67, began his filmmaking career at the National Film Board in 1967, he has earned accolades worldwide for a vast, idiosyncratic body of work distinguished by handcrafted, often personal art-driven creations.

Noteworthy achievements, many combining found footage and graphics, include Raxlen's Etrog Award-winning NFB short Legend (1970), his Jutra Award-nominated Deadpan (2001), the acclaimed 1988 feature Horses in Winter, his experimental animation pieces Rude Roll and Geometry of Beware, and We Mammals Pushy, his recent short that fuses animated and photographic images of elephants to an intriguing soundtrack created using finger cymbals.

"I felt fortunate to be able to work at the film board," Raxlen said. "They were open enough to let me experiment. The experiments just had to be successful. [Animator and director] Norman McLaren was allowed to experiment because he was much loved."

A playful pop historian, Raxlen has also innovatively incorporated 1920s footage of Mutt and Jeff and literary figures into works characterized by scratch animation, rotoscoping and vintage live-action footage.

The Open Space exhibition, produced with MediaNet, will take the form of a Raxlen cinemathèque as it showcases on-demand screenings of works by an artist who has often said film should be like jazz.

Open Space executive director Helen Marzolf said the show - believed to be the only comprehensive mid-career exhibition of Raxlen's works - is a good fit for the artist-run gallery celebrating its 40th anniversary. "He's a really good example of an interdisciplinary artist," she said. "I like how he disperses his work through these informal networks and invests in the microeconomy. A lot of independent artists are microbusinesses. I admire his independent spirit."

A highlight will be the Jan. 26 première of KornU-Kopia, a 20-minute dualscreen "visual cornucopia," as Raxlen described it. "It's a nonnarrative piece with unconnected material I'm trying to connect," he said. "I play a bit with the concept of narrative by my choice of music."

Raxlen, who taught filmmaking at Concordia University and headed the Montreal film co-op Mainfilm before moving here with his wife Susy in 1992, works out of a studio in a historic storage building on Johnson Street.

It houses his classic Steenbeck editing machine, trusty 16millimetre projector and other old-school equipment.

"I'm a bit of an anachronism," he said. "I had aspirations to shoot on 35mm but never did. [16 millimetre is] adequate. It smells, sounds and looks like projected image."

Raxlen, whose creations have been privately funded or relied on financial assistance from agencies such as Telefilm, isn't getting rich, nor is that the point. Freedom of expression and audience appreciation and awards and tributes at festivals from Dresden, Germany, to Annecy, France, have been their own reward.

"I don't feel like I've sold out to any particular cultural imperative," he said. "I'm alone in my corner working on whatever suits me or piques my interest. I'm like those people who find heirloom varieties of plants and wheat and vegetables and nurture them. They preserve something that would presumably become extinct."

While mainstream money can be liberating, it can also be "constraining," added Raxlen, noting he doesn't miss the laborious pre-production and production process of making feature films.

"They used to say it took seven years to get a film from A to Z, and it's a crapshoot," he recalled. "You were tied to B.C. Film and a lot more people wanting the same money you did. I chose not to extend that process - I'm not unhappy working for [fewer] dollars. I think there's a dignity to being self-sufficient."

Raxlen, who once aspired to become a poet, isn't surprised he's often described as one.

"I'm an artist who uses film as my medium," he said. "If you work on short abstract things - it's not much of a speed bump between making avantgarde films and poetry."

When asked what he might have done had he not become an artist, the soft-spoken filmmaker pauses to reflect.

"Being an artist is more an existential imperative, not a career choice," says Raxlen, who often explains the distinction between "art-driven" and "marketdriven" films to students and sits on arts advisory boards.

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