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.


-Josh O’Neill


HEYDAY COMICS by Daniel Elisii


The comics of Daniel Elisii arrived in the mail in a little cardboard box, so thoroughly packed and obsessively taped that it took me nearly ten minutes to get the package open. Reading them was a similar experience — tugging at loose ends, trying to pry open maddeningly adherent little corners, frustrated and driven by an inexplicable intuition that there might be something wonderful inside.

Elisii is the creator of HEYDAY COMICS, a series of, thus far, five issues. There is some kind of narrative at work here, or at least a universe being built — a harsh landscape of shifting unknowable deities and small, petty creatures. Several tales concern Kokopelli, a skinny insectoid biped, and his quest to find his lost horn, which seems to have mystical properties. We see him beg, dance and wheedle before Dazza-leth, some kind of creator-god figure. We see him murder and sacrifice — finally he gives Dazza-leth his eyes, and is rewarded with the gift of sight.

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Honestly, I can barely follow some of the narrative here, and I gave myself a headache trying. This is some kind of intuitive, esoteric storytelling, where plotlines don’t follow one another so much as they bubble up from some kind of primordial mythic stew. They shift in and out of coherence as quickly as their tone switches from roar to whimper, from revelation to bitter humor. There is some kind of dreamlogic at work here, in this bizarre half-world of scurrying organisms and booming disembodied prophecy. But the logic seems to be beside the point.
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The glory of this baffling work is in its voice. These comics thunder and slither. They speak through the cracks in the earth and the cavities in your teeth. These are poems, not stories, but the word “poem” calls to mind something gentler, more lyrical than these alienating strips. Their tone seems to come from someplace old and frightening, but reads clean as a whistle. These strips have a drawn-with-the-fist quality tempered by a pure cartoonist’s eye. They are Looney Toons cave paintings; reading them is like discovering an image of Bugs Bunny on the wall of Lascaux.
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There is urgency here, though it is muddled by speaking its own language. Though the drawings themselves don’t show the influence, in some ways the otherworldly tone reminds me of Jack Kirby’s late-period work. Like the New Gods, Elisii’s comics refuse to meet you halfway: they stand on the rock and declare their vision and wait for you, the followers, to gather. There is a tiger-force at work.

This voice speaks from who-knows-where and insists on being heard. “The Gods sing a mighty song for those who listen,” writes Elisii. I am frankly not so sure who or what is doing the singing, but it’s clear to me that Daniel Elisii is listening.

elisii 4– Josh O’Neill