Luke Ramsey’s INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? defies description. Its back-cover copy takes a pretty impressive swing, though: “INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? feels like an artifact from another time — a lost feature in Omni magazine or the album booklet for a late 1970s Hawkwind record or, perhaps, a print version of Koyaanisqaatsi.” In fact it doesn’t really quite feel like any of those things, but the comparisons in sum point you in the right direction: they evoke the pure found-object otherworldliness and unsettling artifactual shimmer of this weird and startling thing. It’s an item that floats in its own self-sustaining cloud of unknowing – a mislaid, untraceable document of a long-forgotten future.
Among the things it’s documenting are: motherboards and root systems; almond-eyed aliens; snakes made of snakes; mushroom clouds trees with trunks of tangled red veins; the exploitation, subversion and destruction of a bountiful, frightening planet; insectoid mandalas, third eyes, astral projections; puppets, puppetmasters, secret societies; shadows and distorted reflections; the ways the writhing, chaotic mass of the natural world fuses to the sleekly ominous silent hum of the digital one.
In this thematically and stylistically linked series of wordless illustrations, Ramsey’s art bends and folds in on itself, redoubling and kaleidoscoping into endless patterns, fractals, double helixes and splintered nuclei, building a mythos of interconnection and unearthly mystery. There’s no rendering in these hyperdetailed kenophobic drawings – just an endless, roiling ocean of squiggles and geometric shapes: anarchic, filigreed abstraction wriggling within the strictures of gorgeously designed clean-line compositions. His stretched-out landscape-format images bubble and twist, exploring the endlessly replicating, mirrored architectures of both our universe and culture. As above, so below.
The same esoteric heiroglyphs – pyramids, obelisks, eyes, coils, snakes – keep recurring through the book, appearing both as natural formations and branded onto labels, displayed on the sides of vehicles, inscribed into flesh. INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? explores the secret lives of images — how the transcendent visual archetypes of myth and nature spawn and split in our viral and mindless cultural exchange, which uses up then reiterates used up structures and compositions and icons. In Ramsey’s vision, a supermarket check-out line is as hauntingly empty and alienating as the star-strewn sky. They both make you feel small and alone, and they are both in a certain sense masks for the unknowable essence of reality.
As in the stunningly detailed but unassuming, even modest pink-on-pink cover, Ramsey uses a combination of high- and low-contrast color choices to introduce a shrouded dimensionality to his strange compositions. He buries painstaking detail in barely-differentiated shades of black on dark brown, or red ink on a red background. It shows an admirable willingness to camouflage his own beautiful and laborious work, and its coy subtlety is magnetic — it lures you deeper and deeper into this book’s quiet, disconcerting simulated reality. It whispers that you should look closer. There’s always more to see – always more paths to follow and lines to unravel.
INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? is animated by a precise and compelling aesthetics that reinvents the universe with a kind of paranoid wonder, builds it up and breaks it down. Its inscrutable message has a cryptic urgency: the world is not the world. There is unspeakable beauty and cunning intelligence hiding behind every curtain. Pull them back at your own risk.
I’m almost to the end of this review, and I still haven’t answered the most pressing question posed by INTELLIGENT SENTIENT?: should you read it while high on mushrooms?
I haven’t taken mushrooms in a very long time, so I can’t speak from experience. I feel I should be cautious here and advise against it. The horror vacui in here is very ominous and itchy, and maybe too compelling for a psilocybin-vulnerable mind to handle. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s psychic break.
But there’s a deep longing in Ramsey’s artwork for some kind of ineffable communion that lies beyond the limits of language and ego. This book wants to be ripped free from its confining context. It’s a world in and of itself, and it aspires to exist on its own terms – not as a collection of illustrations but as a teeming, unfathomable reality. It wants you to fall inside. INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? represents a wild, reckless thrust past the petty fears and estrangements and oppressions of mudane life into a frightening, beautiful, unmapped terrain – a bold attempt to establish contact with the thing behind the thing. It deserves an unguarded mind to meet it on its journey. So come to this book ready to believe. Eager to be abducted. Let Luke Ramsey and his collaborators pry open your mind. See what spills out.
So in other words, yeah. Read this book on mushrooms.
Then report back here and together we can try to signal the mothership.