Harland Miller is a British writer and artist, born in Yorkshire in 1964, best known for producing a series of paintings based on Penguin book covers, including International Lonely Guy and Fuck Art Let’s Dance. Miller’s work explores the relationship between words and images. His paintings, sculptures and mix-media artworks combine the two to comment on the frequent disconnect between representation and reality.
The Chelsea College of Art graduate did not achieve acclaim first through his art. Miller published ‘Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty,’ in 2000, set in 1980s’ Yorkshire, a novel that takes a darkly comedic look at the New Wave. Miller has been largely informed in both his literary and artistic practices by works of fiction, achieving recognition in both cultural disciplines. Having lived and exhibited in Berlin, New Orleans and New York during the 1980s and 1990s, Miller was exposed to the works of artists revealing the consumerist ideologies permeating both the United States and Germany in the Post-War era, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. As such, Miller’s practice is centred around popular culture, using the covers of Penguin Books as a vehicle for literary ingenuity. In 2000 Miller also published a short novella entitled First I was Afraid, I was Petrified, which is based on the true story of a family member’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which prompted her to take Polaroids of the knobs of a cooker, Miller stumbled across this box of oddities. The artist’s fascination with the human psyche reverberates throughout his artistic practice, instilling his work with both satire and nostalgia.
In 2001, Miller created a series of paintings based on the covers of Penguin classic dust covers. In this series, Miller combined Pop Art, abstraction, and figurative paintings to create a series of humorous, sardonic and nostalgic giant artworks. Rather than polished and uniform like fresh book covers, the works take on a story of their own, exposing tattered edges, dog-eared pages and the coffee-stained cover.
His edition practice allowed for wide circulation, however, the silk screening process results in slight differentiations between editions. The iconic book covers are a vehicle to Miller’s satirical messaging, offering a pre-existing intimate relationship between the viewer and the work, and they are more inclined to consider the artist’s interpretation.
Miller was the Writer in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in Boston, Massachusetts in 2002, and it was here that he began to intertwine his literature with his art, hosting multiple events which explored the two. Of particular note was a season devoted to the legacy and influence of Edgar Allen Poe. Whilst Miller was in residence at the ICA, he was already considering how to curate an exhibition which could launch a variety of responses to Poe.
‘Some of the ways in which I went about this were very tenuous.' says Miller, 'It didn’t always have to be about this great debt to Poe or some kind of extravagant mystery bound up in a cipher. With Damien Hirst, for instance, I did actually think he’d really love the story, but what really made me think of him was Poe’s title The Startling Effects of Mesmerism on a Dying Man, which reminded me so much of the rhythm in one of Hirst’s own titles, which I really love.'
Miller returned to the 19thcentury author throughout the early 2000s, curating ‘You Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil’ at the White Cube Gallery in 2008, in anticipation of the 200thanniversary of Poe’s birth in 1809, where he asked artists including Tracey Emin to make a work in response to a piece of writing by Edgar Allan Poe. Miller collaborated with Emin on a work; saying in regards to their piece: “I really like it because I can’t tell which part she did, and which part I did. Maybe that’s because she painted over all the bits that I did …”, to which Emin replied, “I think I did paint over them, yeah definitely; but it was a true collaboration because you stood over me while I made the painting.” You can watch the whole conversation between Emin and Miller here.
Millers’ exhibition ‘Don’t Let the Bastards Cheer You Up,’ at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK (2009) spoke to a North-East audience. The assemblage of Penguin Book covers was made specifically for the exhibition, and because the book titles remain specific to the North-East where Miller grew up, the paintings resonated with the local Newcastle visitors. Miller’s paintings reference Abstract Expressionism and German Expressionism, with the text speaking to the tradition of English Pop Art, creating an inclusive atmosphere in the gallery space.
Humour in contemporary art is rare, Miller believes this is because, “…people don’t like to trust their emotions when they look at work. I think they prefer to have a cerebral response to work, rather than an emotional one. Emotions are not trustworthy. We have to be careful… because they might take us the wrong way. You are more accountable when you’re making work that acquires a response.”
Miller’s use of text upon large-scale canvases fuses multiple artistic styles, resulting in a work of art which jumps between nostalgia, literature and dark humour. Art consultant Hikari Yokoyama has previously commented that, “Harland’s paintings make a chuckle gurgle up as your psyche goes deep into your personal narrative reservoir, unearthing bizarre treasures lost below,” which epitomises the flux of emotions the viewer grapples with in front of his monumental silk-screens.
Whilst the works are based on the dust jackets of well-known novels, Miller brings them closer to reality, occasionally hinting to their spines and the shadows the books themselves cast. One of his most celebrated works International Lonely Guy has been released as both a novel and a print, and, according to Miller, is based on the first words Elton John sees when he opens his eyes in the morning when on tour.
Miller has extended his repertoire as of 2016 to include his own book cover designs inspired by 1960s and 1970s pop psychology books, works including I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember and Overcoming Optimism, reinterpreting such titles in different designs and sizes. Alongside Miller’s growing popularity is the ever-increasing amount of solo exhibitions, having been exhibited for the first time at Blain Southern in Germany in 2016, and his 2019 exhibition at the White Cube in Hong Kong constituting his first exhibition in Asia. As a multi-disciplined artist and writer, Miller is continuously cultivating his market and testing the boundaries of what one has come to expect from contemporary art. In Miller’s words, “why use 10 words when 20 will do.”