'Psychedelic Space' Turns the Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs Into Art
Kelsey Brookes's new work focuses on how we see chemistry. Image: Chase Cruz


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'Psychedelic Space' Turns the Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs Into Art

Kelsey Brookes's new tome Psychedelic Space provides a highly unique peek at one of the most unseeable areas of science: chemistry.

There's a persistent nuisance that accompanies the process of telling stories about computing, physics, cryptocurrency, the environment and other topics in technology and science: You can't always see what you're talking about.

Sure, we've got robots, space, and nature; image recognition neural networks, microgrography, and in-video game photography. But sometimes, we've got nothing. How do you help someone see a bitcoin or a gravitational wave? In these instances we conjure up visualizations, diagrams, 3D renderings, anything that can help a reader meet us more than halfway.


Every once in a while though, something or someone comes along that brings us a step closer to seeing what we cannot with the naked eye. Kelsey Brookes's new tome Psychedelic Space provides a highly unique peek at one of the most unseeable areas of science: chemistry.

Brookes, a former researcher for the CDC and molecular diagnostics company Genprobe, creates paintings based on the skeletal structure of psychoactive molecule line diagrams: LSD, mescaline, Oxycontin, MDMA, methaqualone, Ritalin, psilocybin. (Just your regular Friday night.) They are aesthetic renditions of a reality we know to be there but are unable to view: vibratory, hallucinogenic, dazzling artistic expressions with a reassuringly real foundation.

Brookes begins each work with a pencil outline of the molecular structure, mapping out where each atom and bond is positioned on the canvas. His paintbrush then uses these loci as points of departure, radiating outward in bands of contrasting hues.

Kelsey Brookes, "One-Pointed Attention." Image: Philipp Scholz Ritteman

Hamilton Morris's essay/focused lament that kicks the book off best measures the gap between science and visual expression that Brookes so gracefully bridges. Morris triumphs non-contact atomic force microscopy, our most advanced technique for seeing molecular structures, only then to admit it's still insufficient.

"With all its power [it] still does not render a molecule in its entirety and is inaccessible to all but a handful of chemists," he writes before continuing, "so the task of developing a personal understanding of the invisible world, and what it looks like will always be one of the fundamental aspects of understanding chemistry and, by extension, the physical world."


Kelsey Brookes, "Serotonin, 2012." Image: Artscans Studio

The works are a laser rave on adderall. The sheer effort that must go into each painting is staggering. More OCD-afflicted onlookers might compare the experience to a sadistically futile Where's Waldo session, or perhaps an autostereogram that refuses to yield a 3D pony when you let your focus go. There is however a payoff to really participating in Brookes's creations. Letting my eyes run across the lines is to join in on the motion inherent in each work. I couldn't help myself from searching for patterns in the swirls, a repetition from origin points to outer regions then back again. It feels almost meditative.

"Mescaline, 2012." Image: ArtScans Studio, Inc

The question that remains, one that I'm perfectly fine with never being able to answer, is how useful are these works, actually? As far as I can tell, Brookes's artistic license is more of a subjective exploration than it is a reflection of the diagrammatic understructure or a universally agreed-upon feeling that each drug bestows upon the user.

Kelsey Brookes, "Psilocybin, 2012."

Contemplating the anxiety-inducing blackness of Brookes's psilocybin-inspired paintings, one might ask himself: Is this what eating mushrooms feels like? Maybe those times you over-indulged and things got a little bit grim? You're participating in Brookes's experience, not everyone's. This is more twirling towards freedom than textbook. And that's cool.

The book is nicely presented.

The book, which is about the size and weight of a throwing axe, itself demonstrates the marriage of form and function. Meandering through it is like settling into a good trip, learning to enjoy all the surprises that come along the way. It's a print production goodie bag, from its transparent layover pages that superimpose line diagrams on paintings, double gatefold spreads and stickers (!), to color guides, diagrams, inserts, interviews and essays from Ryan McGinness, Leonie Bradbury, Anthony Kiedis and Richard M. Doyle.

Kelsey Brookes, "LSD, 2012."

All in all, the work that makes up Psychedelic Space is a completely original take on an invisible world, and a very grabbable addition to an aspiring psychonaut's coffee table.

Psychedelic Space
By Kelsey Brookes
220 Pages. Gingko Press.