The artist’s playful paintings are the subject of a new monograph and Hong Kong show

Harland Miller in his studio © George Darrell

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By Gareth Harris JUNE 22 2019

Unfolding a deckchair and seeing your work of art emblazoned across the back must be flattering. But Harland Miller does not seem that fussed about the fetching and unusual chairs decorated in the style of his classic Penguin book cover paintings. As we sit in them, outside his teeming, compact south London studio, flying ants bombard our cups of tea while we discuss his book signing held at White Cube gallery in Bermondsey. A throng of millennial and middle-aged devotees, plus quite a few hedge-funders, waited patiently in line for Miller to scrawl on his new monograph In Shadows I Boogie. The dutiful, urbane people queueing up hardly registered party guest, Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, and were keen to see their own art rock star. “I felt more for the people in the queue,” he says.

The monograph, a splashy testament to Miller’s staying power, covers almost 20 years of his art, changing my preconceptions about what he has been doing for the past two decades. There is the funny, sharp “Obituaries” series including “Painting for Bob Monkhouse” (2012) and the technically accomplished “Poets paintings” (2012-14), the seams of which were created with metal-based pigments of copper, silver and gold, which turned out to be highly toxic. Miller worked in shorts, smoking cigarettes, sucking in the poisonous particles with nicotine: he spent three months in an Austrian clinic suffering from heavy-metal poisoning. Harland Miller's 'Painting for Bob Monkhouse' (2012) The Yorkshire-born artist made his mark in the late 1990s with his Penguin series, adding his own cutting and clever titles to the canvas that have been taken to heart by his followers. The fictitious titles are “wittily deadpan, punkish and aphoristic”, says the novelist Michael Bracewell, a contributor to the monograph (“Who Cares Wins” and “I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember” are good examples of Miller’s nimble, memorable maxims). “A lot of people took the trouble to ask if they could have their favourite titles inscribed [during the signing],” Miller says. “I’ve discovered that people take the titles personally. In fact, they write to me, telling me what they mean to them.” Other people posit opinions on why Miller’s art endures.

Art critic Martin Herbert has analysed how Miller, 55, uses humour, astutely noting in the new volume that “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.” 'The Future, You Might Not Like It Now… But You Will' (2017) Miller is a consummate and sincere storyteller, drawing on choice bits of his childhood. He relates, for instance, how his father, a worker at Rowntree’s chocolate factory, would buy huge boxes of books from salesrooms in Leeds, and ask young Harland to sort the publications. “Cars would go in one pile, if there was a copy of The Great Gatsby with a roadster on it, that would go in the same pile as a manual on how to fix your Ford Escort.

This could be a little bit of self-mythologising really, but there was something in that. These piles of books, high and low culture all mixed together — I think that is something present in my work. Some people identify the low culture, maybe some struggle to find the high, but I think they’re both present in some way.” Sifting through the miscellaneous volumes in those giant boxes often yielded art history gems, such as studies on Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. These books had pullout gatefolds giving up-close views of the works. “This [new monograph] is like a homage to those books where you could experience the brushstrokes 100 per cent,” Miller says. Rothko’s pictorial language — those formal yet fragile blocks of colour hanging on the canvas — feeds into Miller’s “Pelican” series (2003-10), a Penguin non-fiction offshoot. “I discovered the Pelicans, which were colour coded. It changes the way you read the text,” he says. 'I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember' (2013) How we perceive colour pops up a lot during our conversation. “George Michael bought ‘Death — What’s in it for Me?’ (2007) which is in cerise [the work sold at Christie’s in March, fetching £212,500]. The point was that the colour gave that painting some kind of levity. If you reproduced the title on a black painting, people read it in a totally different way,” Miller says.

On leaving school, he enjoyed attending lectures in graphic design at York Art School, learning more there than at Chelsea School of Art, London, where he gained a masters in fine art in the late 1980s. He jumped from city to city in the 1990s, decamping first to New York — where Pop, Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field art nourished his soul — and then New Orleans, Berlin and Paris. He took on the persona of International Lonely Guy, an alter ego he uses to this day. Finding a box of Penguin books outside a second-hand bookshop near Notre-Dame in 1992 was a seismic 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,” he says in the monograph. Text and wordplay are never far away, which is unsurprising as Miller also wrote the 2000 zeitgeist novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, a wry rites-of-passage tale set in a northern UK town in the early 1980s. These [YBA] guys could have ideas and get them moving sometimes just by picking up phones, sometimes even without leaving the pub A report from a national newspaper at the time hailed him as “ineffably hip and happening”.

The eulogy makes him cringe but the report is spot on in other ways, especially the description of him as “a painter on the periphery of the Young British Artist crowd”. “When I got back to the UK, there was this new scene with the YBA group but that sleeves-rolled-up kind of messy painting I was doing wasn’t really a part of that. It was almost exclusively conceptually based. As it got late, I was often thinking about maybe getting up in the morning to paint, and having to get up ladders and things, with hangovers. I mean, there was that physical side to it,” Miller says. “These guys could have ideas and get them moving sometimes just by picking up phones, sometimes even without leaving the pub.”

A group show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1996 (Fool’s Rain) was a turning point. “That’s when I exhibited the dust jacket Penguin series. [White Cube founder] Jay Jopling saw those. He really liked them, and asked to come to the studio.” The partnership has endured, with the most recent chapter unfolding at White Cube Hong Kong where Miller is currently showing a series of new works (to August 24). 'Death — What’s In It For Me?' (2008) Does the show signal a new direction? “The new paintings are working with letters on a much larger scale. They involve the whole arc of my arm and a lot of up-and-down ladder stuff,” Miller explains. The words “Sin”, “luv” and “boss” loom large and flicker, built up from layers of reds, yellows and oranges (there’s a nod here also to 1960s and 1970s graphic design).

The exhibition in Asia enables Miller once more to meditate on the interplay between textual forms and the materiality of paint. “In some of the more abstract works, each letter is given the same value and they come in and out of focus, you can follow the one letter and it sort of disappears — it’s a way of experiencing the painting and the word at the same time,” he says. Meanwhile, a memoir is forthcoming along with a show at York Art Gallery next year. “It means a lot to me as I grew up in York and my punk T-shirt shop was just around the corner. I used to design and print them as a bootlegger in the punk era and I’d often wander into the gallery,” he says. Leaning back in his deck chair, Miller seems genuinely happy at the thought.

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