Harland Miller is an artist and writer best known for his paintings referencing Penguin book covers. The British artist specialises in the art of subtle sardonicism, from his original York: So Good They Named It Once to his painted version of Lily Cole's Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World.Read More
Harland Miller was born in Yorkshire, and attended Chelsea College of Art for both his BA and MA. He travelled throughout the world after earning his degrees, sojourning in London, Berlin, Paris, and New York between 1980 and the early 1990s, where he also held solo shows. Miller lived in Berlin for a year in 1992, which marked the beginning of his writing career.
Published in 2000, Miller's first novel is entitled Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, and tells the story of a child travelling around Britain with a David Bowie impersonator.
After the success of his debut novel, he published At First I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified later that year, a visually driven exploration of obsessive-compulsive disorder based on a relative of Miller's who had accumulated hundreds of photographs of stove knobs all turned to 'off'. The title of the book is a reference to a Gloria Gaynor song and summarises Miller's pun-based artistic approach.
In 2001, Miller began a series of paintings appropriating the book covers of the classic Penguin and Pelican novels as a way of combining his passion for words and art.
In his inaugural exhibition with White Cube in 2002 entitled To Jean, A Small Memento of a Great Effort, Love Alan, the artist presented large paintings mimicking well-known book covers, each painting being divided into three horizontal bands that feature, respectively, the imprint name, the cover title, and the eponymous bird. The bands of colour reference the Colour Field painting of the 1950s, especially the works of Mark Rothko.
The logos and quick punch of text draw attention to the inherent possibilities of words within the visual field. The made-up snappy titles Miller paints on the book often explore the complex and compelling pull of written words. As Miller has said: 'Painting is the worst medium to express narrative, but perhaps the best to hit a nerve.'
In 2012, the artist presented two new series of works consisting of a selection of figurative paintings alongside paintings based on the marbled covers of vintage Penguin poetry books. The dust-jacket paintings were created on smooth walnut panels and made on the floor in the manner of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings using luxurious and fluid metallic paints.
Harland Miller's paintings reference the artist's wide range of literary and artistic influences.
While a Writer in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 2002, Miller programmed a series of events that included a season devoted to the writer Edgar Allan Poe, whom Miller has referred to as his first literary influence. He began reading Poe as a child, while recovering from an appendix operation, and thereafter began using crayons and a drawing pad to write and illustrate versions of Poe's stories.
In 2008, in homage to Poe, Miller curated an exhibition entitled You Dig the Tunnel, I'll Hide the Soil, in collaboration with Irene Bradbury. Staged across two London venues, White Cube Hoxton and Shoreditch Town Hall, the exhibition brought together 35 artists who were invited to respond to their favourite Poe story. In addition to Miller, participating artists included Jake & Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Angus Fairhurst, Katharina Fritsch, Rodney Graham, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Christian Marclay, Mike Nelson, Magnus Plessen, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Cerith Wyn Evans.
In another series of fictional book covers, Miller began to create hard-edged paintings featuring layered letters in different typeface. Using bold, saturated colours, he referenced painters such as Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha's use of vernacular signage and motifs. Within the same series, he also pays homage to the palette and lines of Art Deco and early 20th-century design.
Social science and psychology books and ideas also influence the artist. In 2017, he began referencing the covers of self-help manuals from the 1960s and 70s. Characterised by their colourful and geometric covers, these books spoke to a type of social neurosis, and also offered a means to reference abstract painting, which Miller was able to exploit in his paintings.
Harland Miller has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include York: So Good They Named it Once, York Art Gallery (2020); In Dreams Begin Monsters, Palacio Quintanar, Segovia, Spain (2015); and Don't Let the Bastards Cheer You Up, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, U.K. (2009).
Group exhibitions include Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, Somerset House, London (2016); Sculpture in the Close, Jesus College, Cambridge (2013); Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2005, 2006, 2007); and Fools Rain, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1996).
Matthew Burgos | Ocula | 2021