Penguin prints Harland Miller
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Miller first became critically acclaimed as a writer. His first novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty (2000), the semi-autobiographical story of a travelling David Bowie impersonator, received positive reviews from the British press.
Writing and literature has been an integral part of Miller’s practice. He continued to publish shorter novels such as First I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified (2001), as well as starting to incorporate language directly into his paintings and prints, making his witty titles into their central element. He did a Writer’s Residency at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2002, devoting a season to curating workshops and events around the oeuvre of 19th century British author Edgar Allan Poe. His interest in Poe continued until in 2008, he curated the Poe-inspired group exhibition with 35 artists (including popular YBAs such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) called You Dig the Tunnel, I’ll Hide the Soil at the White Cube shown across multiple London venues.
Miller is most famous for his Penguin classics works he began producing in 2001, inspired by the format of the dust jackets of Penguin books. In this iconic series, he appropriates the familiar format and motif of the Penguin title page, exploring the relationship between the abstract, bold background colour and the embedded text, coming up with his own ironic, humorous titles with the likes of Fuck Art Let’s Dance and International Lonely Guy.
He first exhibited the series in a group show entitled Fool’s Rain at London’s ICA in 1996, which proved to be the turning point in his career. The founder of White Cube gallery Jay Jopling, who visited the exhibition, saw great potential in the Penguin works and arranged a studio visit with Miller. He has been represented by White Cube ever since and is now amongst the gallery’s most sought-after artists.
Alongside the ongoing Penguin series, Miller continued to expand on his experimentations with language and image, such as in his large-scale etchings known as the Letter Painting series. They feature similarly bold and saturated colours featuring words with single or two syllables, such as ACE or LUV (2019). These works push the boundaries of literary abstraction up to the point of abstracting the meaning of language itself, in the rich tradition of artists such as Ed Ruscha.
Today, Harland Miller is an established author and artist working across painting, sculpture and print with notable solo exhibitions in Blain Southern in Germany (2016) and White Cube in Hong Kong (2019) and a large-scale retrospective at the York Art Gallery (2020). His dazzling market performance both for original works and editions has attracted many celebrity collectors, including Rachel Weisz and Ed Sheeran.
Why is the Penguin prints series so important?
Miller’s paintings based on dust jackets of Penguin books played a crucial role in kick starting his artistic career. His first inspiration for the series came from when he stumbled upon a box of Penguin Books outside a second-hand English bookstore in Paris in 1992. Their dusty, old and damp smell apparently reminded him of Northern England and his hometown of Yorkshire. This is when he experienced a “Eureka!” moment:
“I realised that the design of those classics would throw all the focus on to the title of the book, which is exactly what I wanted to do.(…) People are so used to the format already with the text in the middle that you could really say whatever you wanted.”
The series is taking the familiar format of the Penguin book covers as well as their Pelican non-fiction branch as his framework for his satirical punchlines replacing the original book titles against an abstract, coloured background, replicating the original dust jackets in a photo realistic style.
Miller was originally concerned about potential copyright infringement when it came to adapting the exact design of the dust jackets. However, Penguin Random House instead commissioned him to make a new series for their offices around the globe, perhaps recognizing how Miller’s take on their books might have a similar effect on their brand as Andy Warhol’s did for Campbell’s Soup cans. The chairman of the international publishing house, John Makinson, has expressed the following admiration for the series:
"What I love in Harland’s work is that, although it’s obviously his take on the Penguin design heritage, it is amazingly true to the spirit of the Penguin cover. They’re sardonic, playful, ironic… but they’re mostly rather beautiful images.”
The Pelican Bad Weather series is similarly based on the dust jackets of Pelican books, which are non-fiction, essay publications by Penguin’s publishing house. These Miller works are mostly inspired by Northern England and Yorkshire’s seaside towns and landscapes, where Miller is originally from. He was surrounded by these Pelican books growing up in his childhood home. Such works are BRIDLINGTON 93,000,000 Miles From The Sun and WHITBY The Self Catering Years, with titles echoing the bitter, dry humour that runs through his oeuvre and this iconic series as a whole.
In terms of their artistic style, the Penguin prints are influenced by both Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, infused with the conceptual aspect of the written word. Miller is interested in Pop Art’s ideas of challenging authenticity and overriding authorship; most of his works feature him as the author and were given humorous titles such as Rags to Polyester; Bridlington, Ninety Three Million Miles From The Sun and York, So Good They Named It Once. A further play on authorship is his occasional use of other famous existing authors. These works proved to be highly popular, such as Animal Husbandry – Charles Bukowski, sold for £32,500 and Ignore All Alien Orders – Aldous Huxley fetching for £60,000 with Phillips Auction House, both well above their original estimates.
The print series is an exploration of the relationship between text, colour and their effect on the audience, while simultaneously formulating poignant social critique. Miller cites the likes of Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer and most importantly Mark Rothko as his main artistic influences.
“One of my favourite artists is Rothko. If you look at a lot of Rothko, when he got into the maroon phase he was dealing with a lot of oranges and this redness of orange. There is a Rothko which is essentially a Penguin book . . . the same format – the orange-white-orange – just without the graphic furniture”, the artist explains.
The impact of Rothko’s focus on colour and its effect on the viewer’s emotions and perception of the work is apparent in the Penguin series. For instance, giving the title Death – What’s In It For Me? a light pink backdrop plays with the weightiness of the theme of death and gives it a more light-hearted context, manipulating the viewer’s engagement with the work and the topic. (This work fetched £212,500 at auction with Christie’s in 2019.) Thus, the use of specific colours and their relationship to the text is crucial in this series.
Another theme Miller explores is the feeling of nostalgia evoked by the worn, rugged book covers. Hence his own reimagined works aiming to recreate the covers with their stained, dripped, aged and faded facade. Appropriating the logo was equally important - Miller elaborated on why he thought Penguin went with the image in the first place, as well as his own choice for it in an interview with The Guardian:
“…the intention was to bring books to “the people” – to cheapen the erudite and elitist stuff into looking less intimidating, so pursuits such as bridge could be mastered by anyone. Even if you didn’t have a drawing-room, you could still play a mean rubber. “
The Penguin prints are an ongoing series through which Miller continues to explore the complex relationship between written word and image. Their artistic language is invariably characterized by dark humour, irony and the unapologetic reflections on the depths of human psyche. As of 2016, he started experimenting with sizes including his own book covers like I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember, Overcoming Optimism and Happiness inspired by mainstream psychology books of the 60s and 70s and reflecting on rather sinister themes of dealing with neuroses and psychological disorders. Works from this series are characterized by a bold, vibrant use of colour with abstract, geometric cover designs.
Miller’s Penguin prints have enjoyed an impressive and enduring popularity, both the original paintings and his editions. Their market has been attracting many famous collectors to invest in his artworks with pieces often fetching a lot higher than their estimated prices. The artist’s most impressive results at auction include This Is Where It's Fucking At sold for £75,000, (his record thus far) going above its estimate of £20,000-£30,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Fair in 2016. In addition, I'm So Fucking Hard - Ernest Hemingway valued originally at £20,000- £30,000, sold for £50,000 by Phillip's.
Signed limited edition posters, prints and editions of the original paintings have been much in demand on the secondary market but are still possible to acquire for a much more affordable price than original works, somewhere between £2,500 – £35,000. In spring 2020, White Cube launched a COVID-19 charity fundraiser for care workers using Harland Miller’s 250 editions for Who Cares Wins (2020) in the style of Penguin dust jackets and managed to completely sell out in 24 hours raising as much as £1.25million with each print selling for £5.000. The artist himself had the virus and expressed his thoughts about the fundraiser in the following:
“Sitting here in my ﬂat, nursing mercifully mild symptoms of Covid-19, I see from the lowering sun outside, it’s been a while since I wrote that last line… this inertia maybe a symptom of Covid-19, but it may also be that then—as now—caring is all we can do. And caring for the carers… is, I imagine, one of the ways we can do this best.”
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