There was something about Kasper’s, the long-abandoned flatiron building at the point where Shattuck and Telegraph meet, that inspired Oakland photographer Malcolm Ryder to take out his Samsung Galaxy and capture an image of the graffiti-covered restaurant. Over the course of the next seven years, Ryder returned to photograph the hot dog shop as it was transformed again and again, by an unknown number of artists displaying distinctive styles of artistic expression in vibrant bursts of color.
These photographs are the basis for the art documentary entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper’s,” which opens on Oct. 15 at the Temescal Branch of the Oakland Library. Each photograph in the exhibit offers a single view of the many incarnations of the tiny building that sits on its own urban island.
With no knowledge of who this “Kasper” might have been, or how this once red, neon-bedecked structure came to be a public canvas for anyone who had the time and materials and ability to make it their own creation, Ryder was simply taken in by “colorful curiosity.” (A similar obsession fuels Kingfish owner Emil Peinert’s current renovation of the restaurant, it seems.)
Since the family-owned hot dog business closed in 2003, passersby and neighborhood newcomers might well have wondered what would become of it and why, after all these years, it was still firmly ensconced on the corner across from a McDonald’s.
While some might look at the brightly-colored balloon letters and stark images that appeared on the exterior of Kasper’s over the years as vandalism, Ryder documented the changing artwork that would soon disappear — only to be replaced by the next set of images and words — as a way of preserving and recording what is inevitably a temporary form of art.
Ryder writes about the transformative element in photography that elevates what one sees; linger over the images in the exhibit and take note of what you see: the background, the shadows, the light, the surroundings — they all change around the building, but the building changes too, with each new splash of color and design.
Selections from the Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper’s collection of landscape images is being shown at the Temescal Branch of the Oakland Library (5205 Telegraph Ave.) from Saturday, Oct. 15 through Jan 15, 2023. From 2-4 p.m. on Oct. 15, there will be a celebration of the Kasper’s building and the surrounding community, with live music, refreshments, and more local history.
At his website, you can view more of Malcolm Ryder’s Oaktown portfolio and an online virtual gallery of Thirteen Ways. All photos will be available for purchase after the show. For more information, contact Malcolm Ryder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Constance Hale, writer, co-creator and curator of Thirteen Ways, said that “Malcolm’s seven-year documentation traces the metamorphosis of Kasper’s from relic to outdoor gallery of street art to urban phoenix.”
As part of the exhibit, Ryder and Hale share with the viewer their insights and perspectives on the images we see gracing the walls of the library above the stacks, and again in the downstairs room where each photo is accompanied by two interpretations. (Don’t miss the downstairs room. It’s a big part of the exhibit.)
The poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, is also on display — and the viewer is invited to look for the connection between the way an artist perceives an ever-changing building and the way a poet uses words, asking us to observe the images along with them in all their variations.
What they refer to as “a mysteriously morphing landmark in the Temescal neighborhood” becomes the “blackbird” that inspires the artistic vision. Referencing the poem in the title of the exhibition, Hale says, was a “random idea” that popped into her head. (There are indeed thirteen images, with one triptych sneaking in to make an accurate total.)
Thirteen Ways is a true collaboration between college classmates and long-time friends Ryder and Hale. At a pre-opening peek of the exhibit, I was able to spend quite a bit of time reading the interpretations written by both, going photograph by photograph.
In a recent conversation with the pair, I learned that in his extensive Oaktown portfolio of landscape images, Ryder shows sides of Oakland that many people don’t know or appreciate; he endeavors to “capture the neglected essence of a mostly misunderstood city.”
Both Ryder and Hale are long-time residents of Oakland and were determined to both celebrate and memorialize Kasper’s during its transformation: what they call “one of the best outdoor galleries of public street art in the East Bay.”
One of the exhibits adjoining Thirteen Ways at the library (in the downstairs room) presents a history of the Temescal neighborhood, with references to long ago businesses that used to line the streets nearby: the original Genova delicatessen and the Buon Gusto bakery, just to name a couple. (Find out why and when the library’s name was changed from the one on the outside of the building.) While not part of the photography exhibit, this additional look at the neighborhood offers some timely context.
Readers may recall that Kasper’s is still undergoing renovations in preparation for the restaurant’s reopening. There is no firm date yet. As of this writing, construction continues on Kasper’s, and space for some of the artwork remains in several niches on the Shattuck side. Change is inevitable, however, given the rapid replacement of one artist’s vision by another’s.
Featured image: “Town,” from the Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper’s collection. Credit: Malcolm Ryder, used with permission