Born in Yorkshire in 1964, Harland Miller is a writer and artist who is best known for producing a series of paintings based on Penguin book covers, including International Lonely Guy and Fuck Art Let’s Dance. Characterised by an undercurrent of dark humour, Miller’s paintings, prints, sculptures and mixed media artworks explore the relationship between words and images to comment on the frequent disconnect between representation and reality.
While he is now most famous for his prints and paintings, Harland Miller began his career as a writer. In 2000 Miller published Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, a novel set in 1980s Yorkshire that takes a darkly comedic look at the New Wave. His interest in the literary continues to inform his visual art practice and over the years he has received acclaim in both disciplines.
That same year 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 to ensure she had turned it off. Miller stumbled across these strange images and turned them into a work of fiction. The artist’s fascination with the human psyche tinges all facets of his artistic practice, instilling his work with both satire and nostalgia. In 2007 one of Miller’s most famous works, International Lonely Guy was released as both a print and a book of interviews and essays exploring his artistic and literary influences.
The Penguin Paintings
While living in Berlin, New Orleans and New York during the ’80s and ’90s, Miller was exposed to the work of postmodern artists who were concerned with making work about the consumerist and neoliberal ideologies of the post-war era, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, much of Miller’s practice is centred around the signifiers of popular culture. In 2001, Miller created a series of paintings based on the iconic ’50s and ’60s paperback covers of the Penguin Classics collection of well known novels. In this series, Miller combined Pop Art, abstraction, and figurative paintings to create a series of simultaneously humorous and nostalgic artworks, on a monumental scale. The instantly recognisable covers became a vehicle for Miller’s satirical message, offering a template that would be familiar and evocative to most and immediately opening up a kind of intimacy with the viewer through memory and association. Rather than presenting them as polished and uniform book covers, Miller allows his imitations to take on a story of their own, exposing tattered edges, dog-eared pages and the occasional coffee-stain that bring them out of fiction and into reality.
Miller & Poe
In 2002 Miller was the Writer in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in Boston and it was here that he began to combine his literature with his art, hosting multiple events which explored the two forms, including meditations on the legacy and influence of Edgar Allen 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.”
Miller returned to the 19th century 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 200th anniversary 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 piece, which he claimed to “really like” 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.
Miller at the Baltic
In 2009 Miller had an exhibition at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK entitled Don’t Let the Bastards Cheer You Up. The works in the show – a series of Penguin Classic covers made specifically for the exhibition – spoke specifically to the North-Eastern audience through the titles of the ‘books’ that referred to Miller’s own childhood in the region and the experience of many of the locals who came to see it. Miller’s paintings also referenced Abstract Expressionism and German Expressionism, as well as the British tradition of Pop Art.
Humour in Art
It is rare to find humour in contemporary art, and 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 requires a response.”
As well as being intriguing aesthetic objects, Miller’s canvases offer catharsis in their wit which is perhaps why he has found so many fans around the world. As art consultant Hikari Yokoyama put it, “Harland’s paintings make a chuckle gurgle up as your psyche goes deep into your personal narrative reservoir, unearthing bizarre treasures lost below.”
Recent Work & Exhibitions
In 2016 Miller began making work based on the book covers of ’60s and ’70s pop psychology books, including I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember and Overcoming Optimism, reinterpreting such titles in different designs and sizes. Having enjoyed critical and commercial success for some time now, Miller continues to show on the international circuit, with exhibitions at Blain Southern in Germany in 2016, and the White Cube in Hong Kong in 2019. As a multi-disciplinary artist and writer, Miller is continuously growing his market and testing the boundaries of contemporary art.
Harland Miller Prints
While Miller’s large scale canvases realise record prices at auction, his editions present a more affordable option for collectors. By using polymer-gravure, photo-etching, block printing and silkscreen, his prints allow him to reproduce his paintings in large numbers, while also avoiding exact mechanical repetition through slight variations on each sheet. Many of these editions are signed by the artist, making them a desirable part of any collection of contemporary art.