As he opens his homecoming show in York, Harland Miller tells Hettie Judah about the subversive power of colour

York: So Good They Named It Once is Harland Miller’s biggest solo exhibition to date (Photo: Charlotte Graham)

Published by The I
By Hettie Judah

It is very contrary of York to be all a-glow in winter sunshine when I arrive to meet Harland Miller. The painter’s homecoming show, York, So Good They Named It Once, opens with his “bad weather paintings”. The clear skies are inconsiderately off-brand.

Like much of Miller’s work over the past two decades, the “bad weather paintings” play with the graphic style and surface wear of vintage paperback books, in this case the rather serious instructional blue-covered Pelicans, a non-fiction Penguin imprint that ran between the late 1930s and early 1980s.

Reimagined by Miller, the expanses of blue derived from the original Pelican designs are washy and drippy, built up in thinned layers like rain-streaked, flood-soaked Rothko paintings. Each carries a title that pays knowing homage to the costa del Yorkshire: Sandsend – Ninety Three Million Miles From The Sun, or Whitby – The Self-Catering Years.
As we sit drinking tea in the York Art Gallery, the 56-year-old shares childhood memories of summer holidays eating damp sandwiches and dodging squalls. “Those paintings elevate all of that stuff to a level of… I don’t know, is heroism too strong a word?” he asks.

The paintings are indeed heroic in scale, tugging you into their expansive blues. Coupled with the deadpan wit of the titles they become irresistibly bathetic. Bathos feels like Miller’s natural habitat.

Born in North Yorkshire in 1964, Miller left school at 16 to study graphic design (“there was no fine art here in York, but I like graphics anyway”) and got a job working for a T-shirt printer based out of an old butcher’s shop. In a round-about way, printing introduced him to the world of fine art: rather than try and improve imperfect T-shirts, his boss would say: “It’s kind of Warholian” – a reference to the splashy use of colour in the American artist’s imperfect screen-prints.

Miller harbours deep affection for Warhol and other artists and authors he discovered in his teens. “I like all the guys I liked when I was 18 and that you’re probably not supposed to like, that you’re supposed to move through,” he says, reeling off a list of early influences ranging from Egon Schiele, through Salvador Dalí to Edvard Munch, with a side order of David Bowie, William Burroughs and HP Lovecraft.

Miller fast realised he was too contrary for a career in graphics, though his interest in typography endures in his meticulous lettering. He remembers being warned not to use a certain yellow that could make people feel violent, or a purple that could make them feel morose. “That’s when I probably knew that I couldn’t really go into commercial or advertising work because I immediately liked the idea of making yellow and purple artworks,” he says. “It just appealed to me in a subversive way.”

He remains attentive to the emotional impact of colour. “It’s endlessly fascinating to me. I use the example of Death, What’s In It For Me? [a series of paintings using the graphics of a classic Penguin paperback]. If it’s pink then there’s a kind of levity to it. But if you change it to green, people don’t have the same connection. Same title, same layout, you change the colour and people read it in a different way, they don’t even know why that’s happening.”

(As it happens, the aforementioned pink Death, What’s In It For Me? came up for auction this time last year as part of the late George Michael’s art collection. It sold for more than £200,000.)

Four years after leaving school, Miller wound up in London, and enrolled at Chelsea School of Art. There followed periods of gritty, underbelly type existence in New York, Paris and Berlin: painting, exhibitions and scrapes enough to fill a lifetime of anecdotes, including hanging out at the 24-hour truckers’ diner with transvestite friends in New York City and living in an unofficial safe house for underage runaway prostitutes in Berlin.

Miller is an enthusiastic raconteur. Conversation careens gloriously off course, from unsolicited advice from Jeff Koons not to produce green paintings, to that morning’s battle with his mum’s outsized orange curtains.
It was while living and painting in Paris in the 1990s that he bought a box of damp second-hand paperbacks and re-encountered the classic Penguin design that later became something of a fixation for him.

Showing work drawn from across the past two decades, one room in York is dedicated to his Penguin paintings. Early on he paid flip homage to authors he was reading at the time, memorably giving Ernest Hemingway the title I’m So F**king Hard and DH Lawrence Dirty Northern Bastard. He soon dropped the satire and stepped in himself to become “author” of Health And Safety Is Killing Bondage, Overcoming Optimism, The Me I Never Knew and a bookstore’s worth of impeccably titled fiction.

Together, his fictional fictions suggest an authorial alter ego – a hapless character dubbed “International Lonely Guy”. “I do think of each title as a potential work of fiction,” he says. Just to add a layer of confusion, Miller really is an author – of the novel Slow Down Arthur Stick to Thirty (2000), a dark, funny tale of Bowie-obsessed outsiderish adolescence in a small northern town. He’s currently writing a memoir, though it’s hard to imagine it being many miles distant in tone.

As an artist, pithy aphorisms have earned Miller an unusually engaged fan base: “People who may not even really like art will stop and read what it says on a painting.” He frequently fields requests asking permission to use titles out of context, including a terminally ill woman who wanted to use “Death, What’s In It For Me?” for her gravestone. Surrounded by the platitudes of her well-meaning family, she explained to Miller that she appreciated his irreverence to life and death alike. Miller wrote back saying that of course she could use it: “Don’t worry, you’re over the worst.”

He does fear that his words take on too much of a life of their own – an existence independent of the paintings – and has recently pared back the text to a single word, or syllable: Good, Hell, If, Up, Bi- “Just words that everyone uses: common words.” These present him with a more purely graphic challenge. Gone are those Rothko-like lozenges of moody colour, in their place have come typographic compositions and evocative colour palettes. Good (2020) has the poppy optimism of early 1960s Italian graphics; Luv (2018) the fat faux-neon glow of a 1980s T shirt slogan; while Ace (2017) is all jaggedy sharp fluorescent brights.

The comparatively simple focus on colour, typography and composition in these new works makes it easier to approach them as a single entity, rather than text and painting floating apart. (He still can’t resist a good punchline though – the striped Hell series all come with a zingy payoff: “… we’ve had an awful time getting here”, reads one, “… we’re here all week”, another.)

He tells me this more restrained use of text has not dampened fans’ enthusiasm for reading their own secret histories into his paintings. “It was interesting to see if a word could encapsulate someone’s story – or they thought it could,” he says. “The answer has been yes, actually. Some people have written back and said, ‘If: this is my whole life!’”

I’m not entirely sure whether he’s winding me up. With Miller the line between art and life, artist and persona, fiction and memoir often seems calculatedly hazy. Perhaps I should be paying less attention to the words than the colour surrounding them.

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