IS? is 'gorgeous'

“Comics Panel” / AV Club / Oliver Sava / April 7, 2015

Don’t expect much of a plot from Luke Ramsey’s Intelligent Sentient? (Drawn & Quarterly), a 64-page art book of gorgeous filigreed drawings exploring themes of creation, evolution, war, technology, and artistic identity. There’s the smallest hint of a narrative that unfolds over the course of the book, but the reader defines the details of the story by drawing connections between the rich illustrations, meaning no two interpretations are going to be exactly alike. Before diving in, it’s worth reading the book’s front matter, which provides valuable context regarding the multitude of loaded questions Ramsey unpacks through his artwork. But Ramsey isn’t providing any answers. Instead, he’s visualizing the questions in his artwork, finding new avenues to explore heady topics like mankind’s relationship with nature and the pitfalls of technological advancement.

This approach is best exemplified by an illustration that shows the outline of a person with his palms up, arms bent at the elbow, as if he’s saying, “I don’t know.” Question marks appear all over the body, forming in the segments of brain-like tissue that compose the entire image, and the drawing is the color of ground meat. The combination of the palette, pattern, and punctuation poses a question about the relationship between body and mind, but because of where the image falls in the sequence, it could also be about the evolution of man and the formation of a mind that separates him from animals.

Like any great abstract art, Ramsey’s illustrations provide enough substance to spark ideas while allowing plenty of room for individual interpretation, which can easily change between readings. This is an art book, so it doesn’t take very long to get through, but it has a lot of re-read value. The themes become clearer when the reader has a base understanding of the big picture, and there’s so much detail in the artwork that it’s easy to find new things that may have been missed the first time through. There’s something hypnotic about the fine lines, bold colors, and recurring textures of Ramsey’s illustrations, making Intelligent Sentient? an especially immersive title that pulls the viewer deep into a totally unpredictable environment.

Toward the end of the book, Ramsey starts to direct his focus inward, exploring his own artistic identity through the use of an “anti-character” inspired by the figures of Keith Haring. Ramsey isn’t shy about pointing out specific influences on his art; one of the drawings is a direct homage to works by Tove Jansson, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Moebius (among others), and that image is followed by a series of illustrations by artists with whom Ramsey identifies. Jon Boam, Jesse Jacobs, and Michael DeForge are a few of the visionary creators that turn up the psychedelic elements leading up the book’s conclusion, and this voyage through the work of Ramsey’s contemporaries informs his art throughout the rest of the book.

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