The Phaidon Folio

Laughter and After: Harland Miller's Use of Humor—by Martin Herbert

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Laughter and After: Harland Miller's Use of Humor—by Martin Herbert
Harland Miller. Photo: George Darrell via Phaidon.


Harland Miller is both a writer and an artist, practicing both roles over a peripatetic career in both Europe and America. After living and exhibiting in New York, Berlin, and New Orleans during the '80s and '90s, Miller achieved critical acclaim with his debut novel, Slow down Arthur, Stick to Thirty (2000). Miller's practice has developed in tandem with his love for books—both as sculptural objects in their own right and as the carriers of humor, irony, and emotion. For over a decade, Miller has been painting fictional covers for imaginary Penguin paperbacks, based on the original color block covers that were used to denote genre. Miller's paintings have been shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions including at the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2009, Royal Academy of Art, London, England, 2006 and 2005, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany, 2004, and the ICA, London, England, 1996.

Here, we excerpt an essay written by writer and critic Martin Herbert from Phaidon's newly released In Shadows I Boogie: Harland Miller.

In Shadows I Boogie: Harland Miller is available on Artspace for $100

Titles are hard. You write several thousand words, or several hundred thousand, and when you’re done you have to find a moniker that summarizes the whole thing, memorably and originally. If the title comes first, meanwhile, you have to bend the whole enterprise to it. When Harland Miller wrote his 2001 novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, he wrapped it in a borrowed phrase voiced by David Bowie’s character in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. There’s something comical and ironic in this, because Miller is an expert title crafter, his book brimming with capitalized subheadings that could easily be titles in their own right. Mostly, though, he gets around the problem of being a title champ who then has to make a whole book consonant with his smart, rich locutions—let’s start with Bull Seeks China Shop; If Your Past Were on Fire Would You Go Back to Save It and I Am the One I’ve Been Waiting For—by not writing the books. This leaves him free to create titles that couldn’t be books; or at least couldn’t be classic Penguins, whose timeworn covers he often appears to paint.

Looking at his paintings, it’s tempting to say that we, as viewers, slip into the role Marcel Duchamp famously assigned us: we complete the work, which at first blush might mean imagining a fictional book’s contents. And maybe we do this, if we’re particularly quixotic and/or feel rueful that we’ve lately and bullishly sought china shops of our own. But let’s be real. Most audiences are not going to start mentally writing books when faced with Miller’s work, and if they’re natural writers, they have their own volumes to write. What those putative viewers probably do first is laugh, inwardly or outwardly; instigating laughter, we should note, is no mean feat in an art gallery, an environment designed to throttle gaiety, but then Miller is, in many ways, a one-off.

Harland Miller, I Don’t Sleep So I Don’t Dream So I Don’t Wake Up Crying, 2013, acrylic and oil on watercolour paper, 152 × 123 cm (9 13/16 × 487/16 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

Particularly upfront in their humor are those of his paintings which suggest the unwritten or perhaps just obscure books of modern literary greats and that merrily caricature their styles. I’m So Fucking Hard; Twelve Rounds with God and 61 with a Bullet are credited to Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself aged, yes, sixty-one. Dirty Northern Bastard is ‘by’ D. H. Lawrence, and in this alternative universe From Bad to Shit and the groaning pun of ‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffin’ (The Premature Burial) flowed from the quill of Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps here we should recall E. B. White’s famous injunction against explaining humor, that it’s like dissecting a frog: hardly anybody is interested and the frog dies. But when the viewer laughs, it’s likely because of the bathetic gulf between the ambient high seriousness of the Penguin format evoked by Miller’s loose-handled canvasses and the levelling effect of his titles. If this is the work’s point of entry, though other and more sober registers appear later, then we do need to talk about local and universal humor. Sorry.

Harland Miller is from the northern English county of Yorkshire, as am I. This might make either both or neither of us good candidates for discussing northern humor, because my understanding of northern humor is that it’s just humor, the formative air I breathed, pretensions knocked sideways at teatime. Toughen up, lad. Species of humor that don’t skew to self-deprecation and the puncturing of others’ pomposity, to coal-black comedy and, relatedly, to general assumptions that life’s a cavalcade of shit that you have to make the best of while someone else, probably a southerner, is having it easy—those are foreign variants on comedy. It’s complicated, though. Humor, as Sigmund Freud famously theorized, is also a defense mechanism wherever it arises, and Miller’s art is seamed with enough anxiety to make that dynamic applicable in his case. To continue with the authors referenced and ventriloquized in his art, these pastiches are a classic case of looking suspiciously at the highfalutin and taking it down a peg. But that’s—again—the top layer, a slightly school-boyish larking about that might mitigate feelings of intimidation at the daunting skill apparent in Lawrence, Hemingway or Poe, or the pugnacious Norman Mailer who supposedly wrote Pipe Down Cunt. Then there’s a more lit-crit position: Miller observes, for instance, that Hemingway’s bravado was inconsistent, mostly supermacho but skittish and cautious when it came to, say, writing about sex. Plus, there’s a hint that this teasing of novelists, even dead ones, is being done from an insider position, writer to writer. But this is a writer who isn’t writing. Or is he?

Harland Miller, Love Saves the Day, 2012, oil on wood, 160 × 106 × 7.5 cm (63 × 41 3/4 × 2 15/16 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

The viewer might be amused also because of what Penguin books represent, or at least represented when people read books in public. These were the classic books to be seen reading, or holding, which is why it’s significant that Miller turns them into things that can’t be read, that aren’t actually books. Again, there’s an implicit puncturing of pretense, except that not to write the book is, in a way, to admit your own defeat, like a kid who can come up with band names but not a band or a song. But this comes with the now-signature double or triple twist that, if you’ve already published a very well received novel, it’s not so straightforward. And we do have to factor the artist-slash-writer in. Biographical analyses of art are as dubious as purely formalist ones, of course, but if I’m syncing Miller’s art to concepts of northern humor—and ‘Concepts of Northern Humor’ is surely a book title in waiting—he asks for it, thanks to paintings like GrimsbyThe World is Your Whelk; Blackpool—It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye; Bradford—Ten Years in a Peephole Bra; York—So Good They Named It Once; and Bridlington—Ninety Three Million Miles from the Sun. Growing up in the North you may feel a long way from sophistication. But Miller’s work communicates way beyond his original demographic, and it’s partly because most people, anywhere, feel far from sophistication. Most people are more Gateshead Revisited than Brideshead Revisited, a little nervous of culture but attracted to it to, negotiating it, lashing out but with covert affection. And most people don’t read as much classic literature as they affect to.

The ‘books’ listed above are credited on the ‘covers’ to ‘Harland Miller.’ We have to ask who that is. He’s the author of many volumes, from impecunious dramas like Circling the Small Ads; Rags to Polyester—My Story and Nowhere Nothing Fuck Up, to misanthropic excursions such as Death—What’s In It For Me? and Happiness—The Case Against, or cheerier-sounding inspiration of Hate’s Outta Date and High on Hope, and emotional and psychosexual travelogues such as International Lonely Guy; Love Saves the Day; Today You Get Some Ass and Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore. One title, perhaps vaguely salacious or maybe not, reads I Need a Hole Not a Donut, but the ‘Harland Miller’ here is, to put it wildly infelicitously, the hole created by the donut of his art. ‘International Lonely Guy’ was a character he invented, intended to be hard-boiled but with a melancholy yearning aspect, Philip Marlowe or James Bond with a perpetually broken heart. He doesn’t quite slot together, and nor do the larger constituents of Miller’s work. It’s not that he’s writing and painting in character, more that the self that drives these paintings is admitted as being complexly unstable, appearing in flickering fragments. Miller—the actual Miller—is, like anyone, colored by changing moods, and those moods themselves can be compound: romantic, defensive, amused, mocking, self-mocking and all shades of gray between.

Harland Miller, Rags to Polyester – My Story, 2003, oil on canvas, 213 × 155 cm (83 7/8 × 61 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

The ambiguity starts with what we’re looking at. Are we looking, or are we reading? Miller, if pressed, thinks we’re typically reading, at least at first. This seems fair. But to read a painting already seems ‘off’ and serves to destabilize the process of looking. The paintings privilege fast communication—the way they’re painted, with a sort of stylized gusto, doesn’t vary that much, and seems to signify or perform expressiveness rather than embody it. Maybe you stop paying attention to the painterliness after a while and just take it as read. And take it while you read, which also needn’t take that long. But something, quite probably, has been stored away. Miller’s titles are nothing if not memorable and rise in the mind later. They can be koan-like: On a Clear Day You Can See Yourself has a sort of ambivalent, fog-lifted truth about it. They can take a couple of seconds to ignite, like Reverse Psychology Isn’t Working. Or they can pull something back from the deep recesses of memory, like the double-take-inducing Lionel Ritchie nod in Siesta Forever—Come On and Sing My Song.

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A few years ago, Miller inverted—or forked —his practice, venturing into a kind of self-testing. Instead of constructing complicated multivalent sentences, phrases that could flip or eat their own tails, he began making paintings that involved only a single word: mostly outwardly positive (Ace, Up, Yes, Luv) though occasionally less so (If, Hell). These seemingly test the weight, spaciousness and potential for complication and outright impact of small handfuls of letters—handfuls that, nevertheless, open onto vast connotative acreages. Double meanings, meanwhile, aren’t excluded: words like Ace—retro northern slang, tangy with time and place—or Pot could mean several things but is inflected here by Miller’s other titles. How few letters can you use and still pull off a triple-word score, how far can the deeply familiar be wrenched into openness? Even the most commonplace words, these paintings assert, constitute epistemologically shaky ground if they’re framed as starting points for novel-length narratives, or, if they’re shown together, generate endlessly ramified readings.

Harland Miller, Ace, 2017, oil on canvas, 264.2 × 188 × 5.4 cm (104 × 74 × 2 1/8 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

The ‘Letter Paintings’ can also be seen as a kind of contextual clarification. They situate Miller in a Pop continuum—the kind of art that was emerging around the year of his birth, 1964—harkening back to works like Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE and Ed Ruscha’s laconic word paintings like HONK, OOF, SPAM, TRUTH, SCREAM, etc. If Miller’s paintings often feel perched on a fulcrum between past and present, these might be the unknown canvases of a late, unrecognized albeit excellent, first-wave Pop artist, recently discovered in his or her New York loft amid a tangle of effects. Words, here, become a kind of ready-made, gifted with implicit complexity by the art context. We see a word like Yes and think we know what it means, but any word looked at too long becomes strange and abstract. The more we see it, the less we know it, and the very nature of art is to say: look at this awhile, even if you think you know it. Maybe you don’t. In the sanctity and silence of the gallery, words can fall under this spell too.

And in Miller’s case, it’s hard to say whether we are looking or reading, because there is now far less of a gap between text and image. The letterforms, here, structure the compositions: the paintings are made, primarily, of the artful and tricky arrangements of letters that make up the titular words, a species of gorgeous graphic design. Below this on the canvas, meanwhile, the word is spelled out, establishing the title of the ‘book’ and creating a relay effect as the viewer goes back and, wised up, unlocks the visual puzzle above. The abstractions suit the words, which are abstractions in themselves. (All of this, need it be said, constitutes a move that generously opens Miller’s work to a global art audience, for whom these are some of the most familiar words in English, even if native speakers will now find them layered with unfamiliar readings.)

Opinions divide on whether we currently live in a predominantly visual or verbal culture: circulating images have a power they never previously had, but people are surely reading more than ever, now that we’re all glued to our phones and to social media. Instinct says both angles have merit; what’s also true is that, whether visual or verbal, what we see tends to zip by much faster, to be consumed quicker. We are in a language culture modulated by the visual, and by technology, in that there are more words than ever, but statements are getting shorter, reduced to the length of the soundbite or tweet. In this sense, Miller’s art has been highly prescient, both in its stealthy reduction and in its leaning on the word from the outset. Whereas the generation of British artists he came up with—or slightly after—were criticized for making ‘one-liner’ art, he’s turned the one-liner and one-worder into artforms in themselves, demonstrably albeit trickily chambered with emotional resonance.

Look again at Death—What’s In It For Me?, a line that, according to the artist, someone unsurprisingly wants on their tombstone, à la W. C. Fields’ famous ‘I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’ Epigram as epitaph. Let’s dissect another frog. This phrase is a quick summa of the greatest unknowable of all, a theme of poets for millennia and towards which all our minds turn idly or anxiously every now and again, and more often as we age. That’s the ‘what’s in it?’—what is actually there? But of course there is also the sense in which this is being asked by some hard-bargaining, chivvying character: what do I get out of this deal, eh? The mood pivots from nervous to chippy and back again, somewhat like the character in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, who upon meeting the Grim Reaper elects to play chess for his life. The one-liner is a timed-release pill, swallowed quickly and then left to permeate the guts.

Harland Miller, Death – What’s In It For Me?, 2008, oil on canvas, 213 × 155 cm (83 7/8 × 61 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

At a time when human attention spans are said to be slipping to less than that of the proverbial goldfish, what are the implications for art viewing? A few years ago, a New Yorker profile of a famous curator reported that when gallerists began explaining an artwork to him, if it took more than twenty seconds, he would turn his attention to his mobile phone. That’s extreme, but we’re all distracted. Part of the cleverness of Miller’s work is that his art continues working, via mnemonics, when the viewer is not in front of it: it runs through one’s head like music does, and leverages the fact that it is literally legible. One might even see black humor in this. Some artists stubbornly make work that is anti-mnemonic—abstract paintings lacking in events that unfurl as the eye moves across them, are pure experience, and can’t be remembered in any detail. Those artists, arguably, are overly optimistic about viewers, whereas Miller knows most people are in and out, that he ought to hit fast, and use the tools of wit, bathos, feeling and the musicality of language.

Another reason why Miller’s art connects, though, is because it’s authentically empathetic. Consider the painting entitled The Me I Never Knew. There is no book behind it, of course, but the title encapsulates a journey of self-discovery—maybe it’s the thrilling tale of someone who undergoes hypnosis and accesses their past life, or buried trauma, or whatever. I’d argue that a similar process is going on as Miller’s oeuvre accretes. While titles like Death—What’s in It for Me or Wake Up and Smell the Coffin are waggish, they also mask, and that only thinly, disquiet about mortality. Many a true word spoken in jest, etc. Oftentimes a joke is made so that something can be expressed in a way that is bearable for the speaker and their listeners. It can be difficult, even for the joker, to separate out truth from banter, and Miller may indeed be said to be working something out, one word at a time. The solution is not coming any time soon, though the need for resolution is semaphored. It’s notable that he often repeats titles— there are a number of International Lonely Guy paintings, several called Tonight We Make History (p.s. I Can’t Be There), more than two Who Cares Wins, etc. This is, again, a bit of wit. The classic Penguin paperbacks were nothing if not multiples, and Miller is certainly an artist in a Pop lineage: these are his Campbell’s soup cans, his Marilyns. But repetition also gives the phrases the air of the unanswered, possibly the unanswerable.

My admittedly partisan viewpoint, albeit based on a couple of decades of close observation, is that northerners are outwardly bluff and gruff, but this tends to conceal, self-protectively, a softness and tenderness. Miller, at least as seen through his art, would seem a classic case of this. If his novel was built from his own experiences, it’s tempting to say that he’s continued fabricating a novelistic modality across the accumulated structure of his paintings—the tenor of which is multifaceted—and one whose central character is a sensitive, creative type, probably a writer, whose many-hued moods are highly relatable to the viewer. Some days he’s a cynic, others a romantic, sometimes he’s up, sometimes down. The paintings have changed over the years and decades, not least in Miller’s adaptation of other kinds of Penguin cover: more science driven and diagrammatic ones, for instance. All the while, they’ve encompassed more and more temperaments. There’s the person who asks Why Breathe In? Why Breathe Out?, knowing that there is no why given that we don’t know the meaning of life, and knowing it’s a moot question in any case since breathing is involuntary. But there’s also the artist—the same person— who, on a good day, can just say Yes, and who painted, repeatedly, an imaginary Penguin book entitled Who Cares Wins.

Harland Miller, Why Breathe In? 2017, oil on canvas, (one of a diptych, with Why Breathe Out?), each: 189 × 129 × 5 cm (74 7/16 × 50 13/16 × 1 15/16 in). © Harland Miller. Image via Phaidon.

If you had watched one of the handful of British TV channels on a Sunday afternoon in the 1980s, the SAS action movie Who Dares Wins could well have been on. Who Cares Wins, though, which rides on a parallel process to the one-word paintings by capsizing meaning via a single letter, is the inverse of such gung-ho narratives: an unembarrassed affirmation of compassion. Of course, we don’t know that it’s sincere, but paintings like this, which don’t ride solely on wit, serve as counterpoints to those that do—those which in fact tend to feel darker. If we view the painting the same way we approach a text, and thanks to the format Miller uses we probably do, then what you read first is the title, and then, as the eye strays downwards, the artist’s name: another book added to his prodigious output. But this painting also says, or asks: Who cares wins, and then offers an answer, like a note-to-self: Harland Miller, who could almost be anyone.

[miller-module]

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