If you get lost, you really shouldn’t ask Harland Miller for directions. The English artist is good at many things, but, in person, simple instructions and succinct expression aren’t his strengths. “I’m no fan of using ten words when twenty will do,” he says in his newly updated Phaidon monograph.
However, in new works, Miller has attempted to trim down the verbiage, at least on his canvases. Over the previous two decades, he gained a reputation for his painterly, witty remakes of classic book covers. Yet, in recent times, reduced his word count, to create pictures that just focus on one word, such as UP, GOOD or YES, the letters of which are superimposed, one over the other.
What’s he trying to say? Well, as Miller explains, these works were created partly in response to letters the artist had received from well-wishers, explaining how his art had made them feel. “This is great because, y’know, it saves me the trouble of explaining it,” he says. “I had wondered if it would be possible for people to feel the same way – to have the same connection and feel that their own personal story was just as effectively portrayed by one word alone, one short word, very short… like YES! I hope that is, in fact, the answer to that question.”
It’s a question that Miller has been asking for quite some time. The artist was born in North Yorkshire, and relocated to London as a young man, where he received both a bachelor's and a masters’ degree in Fine Art from the Chelsea School of Art, before moving to New York in 1989.
In 1992, he shifted cities again, to Paris, all the while grappling with the question of how a painter might communicate with an audience, perhaps via images and texts. And in the French capital, in ‘92, he found some kind of an answer, when he came across a box of second-hand books on sale outside an English-language bookstore in the centre of Paris, close to the Notre-Dame cathedral.
Narcissist Seeks Similar, 2020, oil on canvas, 240 × 158 cm (94 1/2 × 62 3/16 in). Picture credit: artwork © Harland Miller / Courtesy White Cube; photo Ollie Hammick
In among this discount bin were a number of old Penguin paperbacks, with their, classic, uniform covers; Miller was immediately inspired. “When I found a box of Penguin books outside a French second-hand bookshop in Notre Dame, I realized that the design of those classics would throw all the focus onto the title of the book, which is exactly what I wanted to do,” Miller says in his newly updated monograph.
There were obvious fine-art references within these commercial designs, first issued by Penguin books in 1935. In his new book, Miller likens the simple design to a Rothko painting, albeit one with ‘graphic furniture’.
Initially, Miller’s book paintings parodied the literary world. His first Penguin painting, I’m So Fucking Hard – Ernest Hemingway (2001), lampooned the 1954 Nobel Prize winner’s undying machismo.
However, as Miller progressed, and his source material diversified – into other styles of book cover, as well as obituaries (Miller read the obits section in French newspapers to improve his language skills), public transport promo materials, and simple letter paintings – so his artistic viewpoint and commentary broadened.
Some works are abstract, color-field style exercises in pigment placement, others channel the bleak, rainy weather of towns in the north of England via heavy washes of turps from his brush-cleaning bucket. The artist’s heavily marbled, Poets series take on an additional, doom-laden, romantic connection after his paints’ metal-based pigments gave the artist a near-fatal case of heavy-metal poisoning; Miller had to spend three months in an Austrian clinic, recovering.
His Hell series, meanwhile, plays with the whizzy, commercial graphics the artist came across during the 1980s on the sides of the coaches he used to catch while travelling the world. “The vehicles were being transformed by these new, bolder graphics to suggest a faster service or, for me, to address this sense of near inertia I’d always experienced on board,” he recalls.
Hell… Don’t Make Me Come Down There 10, 2019, oil on canvas, 223.5 × 155 cm (88 × 61 in). Artwork © Harland Miller / Courtesy White Cube; photo Ollie Hammick
There’s a similar interplay of contrary ideas in the artist’s cuboid series; a set of works in part inspired by the self-help and pop-psychology books of the 1960s and 70s, many of which carried optical illusion-like illustrations on their covers. “It seems I’m often holding two opposing ideas in my head at the same time, either that or I’m constantly oscillating between the two – and I think you can read this sort of interplay in my work,” he says. “In the texts, for instance, you read it one way then – BING! – another.”
It’s a dichotomy that’s expressed very well by the accompanying, visual brain teasers, which appear to shift before the viewer. “What I like about this sort of flip or switcheroo in a painting is that
you can’t always affect it yourself,” he says. “You’re not really in control of the way you’re looking at the work and often it only happens when you’re not consciously trying.”
You could broaden this point out, to consider an inherent tension, between images and words, that recur on almost all of the artist's canvases. The decision to read the words or admire the paintwork can throw viewers off a little, encouraging them, perhaps to continue the story Miller begins in his works in their own minds.
Bad Weather Painting 4, 2020, oil on canvas, 236 × 156.5 cm (92 15/16 × 61 5/8 in). Artwork © Harland Miller / Courtesy White Cube; photo Ollie Hammick
In most of the paintings, Miller places his own name on the canvas, like an authorial credit. In the new book, the critic Martin Herbert pushes this biographical tick a little further, by considering the ‘International Lonely Guy’ - a Miller alter-ego who appears in his titles.
“This is a character he invented, intended to be hard-boiled but with a melancholy yearning aspect,” Herbert writes, “a Philip Marlowe or James Bond with a perpetually broken heart.”
Yet, like any great character, the person we get to know from all these covers isn’t stock or two dimensional; as Herbert writes, “some days he’s a cynic, others a romantic, sometimes he’s up, sometimes down.”
He’s travelled the world; he paints, he reads; he’s funny, but also bleak; he seems filled with doubt, but also self-knowledge; perhaps he is the right person to speak to when you get lost. Both a self-portrait, and a fungible everyman, Miller’s paintings express volumes, without requiring the onlooker to turn a single page. Sometimes it takes a little more imagery; sometimes it's down with blocks of color, or a knowing pun; and at other times, well, YES, Miller tells his tale best when he seems to say very little at all.