Born Detroit, 1946/Studied College for Creative Studies, Detroit; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine; Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan/Lives in Detroit
Rarely does one get to see a full bore display of an artist’s oeuvre, all at once and all in one place. Robert Sestok counts as the standout exception in the Motor City, where he has engineered, from purchase and design to sodding and installing, an open air anthology of his sculptural practice. His City Sculpture park, located at Alexandrine and the Lodge Freeway northbound service drive, features an array of some three dozen sculptures, each centered on concrete pads laid out in a grid. Encompassing four contiguous city lots, and furnished with Sestok-built benches to offer a respite and meditative break from strolling about, this expansive public-private sward—it is open seven days a week—is a welcome oasis within Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood.
Although City Sculpture is just a little over a year old, sculptor and painter Sestok has been embedded in the Detroit art scene from the early, simmering days of the “Corridor,” which saw the influx of a group of artists who established studios along Cass Ave. Sestok continues to be an active participant in the downtown Detroit universe, having participated in the last several years in no less than eight group shows and three solos. As a prime protagonist of the indefatigable do-it-yourself Detroit work ethic then and now, Sestok’s art and activism within the community has climaxed in the 35 year survey on view in his self-made park. Ranging in date from 1980 to 2016, the totems on view include his breakthrough, found object sculpture Conductivity (1980), tucked protectively under the trees at the back of the property. Its bristling porcupine silhouette, dark in hue, rife with jutting, salvaged pipes and poles, establishes the idiom for all that follows: abstract, welded steel sculpture. It summarizes as well the “deconstructivist” aesthetic that he avows is fundamental to his art and other like-minded bricoleurs: “The downtown environment seemed to inspire a deconstructivist view of art. In the past, art was more contained and easily defined; now rules were being broken…. Many artists in the group were tearing things apart and reconstructing them. It was these methods that made artists from the Cass Corridor seem different.”
Pride of place in Sestok’s exposition goes to some of the tallest deconstructivist denizens nearest the entrance, from the emphatically black Triosphere (2010) towering 12’ high, its curvaceous arcs having been cut from propane storage tanks, to the densely packed Dream Machine of the previous year, replete with innumerable small elements—sprockets, pipes, and French curves among them. Near the top a mask/face implies the progenitor of the swarming imagery below. Then there’s the bulbous Save the Planet (2010) and lithe, wiry Tomahawk Heart (2007), with its kinetic inner life—delineated by a twisting steel rod—safeguarded by thick, enveloping contours. Signal, off to the side, and slightly earlier—2004—suggests railroad crossings, but also a lighthearted, effervescent fizzing and bubbling. Equally tall (9’), but glistening and reflective is New Gold Standard #1, recently fashioned (2015) from discarded sheets of golden hued, anodized aluminum. After wham-banging and crumpling them with a bat, Sestok threaded each distressed section onto a supporting rod, like a necklace or kebob, to create a shiny, hollow column of battered bling.
As much of a piece as Sestok’s parade of sculpture seems, as a rule, the origins of an artistic practice evolve from contrary sources. At one point, when the grid was god in the ‘70s, Sestok constructed several crisp, modular structures of wood slathered with tar, such as Cage in 1972. Later, he fabricated a number of mixed media reliefs, loose and kicky like Rock and Roll (1978), now installed in Cobo Center, before Conductivity came along in 1980. Other reliefs, post-1980, followed at intervals, but fully three-dimensional structures soon held sway.
Clearly, Sestok has always “forged ahead, never backward,” steadily assembling sculptures with salvaged materials that came to hand, building two studios and launching a sculpture park over the years. Unsurprisingly, he is not yet done, continuing to harbor a fantasy that one day, perhaps in the broad, open space at the entrance to City Sculpture, he will weld together a monumental mashup of the homeless sculptures still stored in his studio and adjacent alley into a single entity. Is that perhaps why he left the center of the grid incomplete? Daring himself, and us, he proposes “sticking all this stuff together, all the work into one big ball.”
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, August 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016