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A Dog Park for the Ego

Dirty Work at Ego Park

As a venue whose mission statement is currently the Gettysburg Address (I had to take their word on it, as the website is under construction until late spring), Ego Park seems to be a different sort of arts space from the very get go. Even the name is different, described by founder Kevin Slagle, a creative writing student turned sculptor and painter, as a happy accident that stuck, it describes Slagle's somewhat ironic philosophical take on showing art. Specifically, that a gallery is a place for artists to take their egos for a walk - a dog-park for the ego.

Although now happily settled in the East Bay, Ego Park has its beginnings an hour outside of Washington D.C. at a spot called the Blue Elephant. Started by Kevin and his brother, the Maryland venue has been going for seven years and provides a model for the Oakland gallery and event space, which has become the talk of the Bay Area independent art scene since its opening one year ago. Hailed by the Best of the Bay 2002 as the "Best High Art in a Back Alley," Ego Park is oft called the hottest thing happening in Oakland's burgeoning art scene. Located next door to Papa Buzz, now a post-op Mama Buzz, Best of the Bay's "Best Place for Art, Coffee, and Waffles," Ego Park and the rest of Oakland's Telegraph Posse are perhaps the closest thing to an artistic epicenter that Oakland has right now.

Kevin and Aisha Burnes met at the café, when it was still Papa Buzz and the duo quickly began working together. Kevin refers to Aisha as the "center of the universe," while Aisha goes for the subtler tact of calling their relationship "symbiotic". Aisha (a.k.a. Dirty Larry) has curated several shows at the venue including "My Boombox Is Broken; So Is Your Shoelace," an improvisational music event. She also showed her own work at last weekend's 'Dirty Work', the first fundraiser for the space.

Pristinely hung her work more than held its own in the crowded and, by the time I got there, very rowdy space. Two pieces with a 9/11 nod, including a video work starring Dirty Larry himself, succeeded in raising the political bar, while other works showed Aisha's creative diversity. An installation by the door, created from a deconstructed tie and pair of black flowered slippers connected through a network of gilded thread, created a three dimensional drawing, giving away Aisha's "real" profession as a graphic designer, a skill she is headed to New York later this month to pursue.

While this will shake things up for the space, she describes the move as a double-edged sword, in that now both she and the gallery will go bi-coastal. Described by its proud and enthusiastic founder as "a non-funded, non-profit," Ego Park is not run like a traditional gallery space. There is no business model and they do not go after grants, seeking instead to work without a structure, covering the expenses they can and paying the rest with day jobs. Both Kevin and Aisha work full time, take care of the gallery business and also find time to make their own art. When it's not open for shows, the space doubles as Aisha's office and Kevin's sometimes studio. The decision to create this type of arts space is rebellious, snubbing both the profit-driven gallery model as well as the opportunity to create a not-for-profit grant-sustained arts organization. In Kevin's view, there are many genres of art, and there should be room for an equal number of kinds of spaces to show work in. His logic makes sense, and it seems to be working better than one might expect, even providing a bit of hard to come by shelter from the recent economic slump the rest of the more traditional profit-driven spaces have had to face full on.

While Ego Park is certainly acquiring the clout to gain itself some serious funding, the feeling seems to be that anything that gets in the way of letting the artistic community function freely is out. Money generated from outside of the space would end up dictating what went on inside the space, and to Slagle and Burns this is unacceptable. They prefer a process that employs only enthusiasm for the art. When I asked about the installation process Kevin happily explained that there isn't really a process that it is "more like whoever shows up". Artists install their own work, DJs bring their own equipment and the expectations from the artists on the gallery are low. It seems to be enough that Ego Park provides a community that they as artists are drawn to.

Kevin hopes in the next year to host more events with a political conscience, that are relevant to current events and that get the community around the space more engaged in what is going on there. He would like to see more shows that voice a strong opinion and that really make people think. And with no one else to tell him what to do, he just might. Is this a creative utopia? A Millennial artist colony? No, not quite. But it is one of the finest examples of the "we'll do-it-ourselves" creative communities that have developed out of the last few decades' long dearth of federal funding for the arts.

Ego Park is located at 492 23rd Street in Oakland. Dirty Work is available for viewing by appointment. Call 510.823.8045 for more information or email [email protected] to get on their email list for future events.