Fill giant white walls with bright colours and big words on painted book covers and I’m hooked. Like most people, I’ve probably come across Harland Miller’s work in the past but paid more attention to the faux Penguin book titles than the artist’s name. But then Miller has also liked to style himself as “International Lonely Guy” and that man we all know well.
The White Cube’s current exhibition of Harland Miller’s work, One Bar Electric, on until 9 September, contains more paintings of giant book covers with clever titles. Some of the most interesting and, dare I say beautiful, use just one word so that the type itself and the shape of the letters becomes paramount. I especially liked Up, Pot and Ace, how the letters seemed to change into other letters briefly and then revert back to a solid word, if any word can be solid. I probably liked even more the vague contemplation of what Up, Pot and Ace might be about.
Born in 1964 in Yorkshire and now with a studio in south London’s Bermondsey, Miller spent much of the 1980s and 90s in New York, New Orleans and Berlin. He’s written a novel, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty (2000), about a young man who travels around northeast England with a David Bowie inpersonator, and a novella, First I was Afraid, I was Petrified (2001), about OCD, inspired by coming across a box of photos of the knobs of a cooker on “off”. In 2001 he found himself in Paris needing things to read and could only afford second-hand Penguins, so he bought a stack, and those book covers gave rise to Miller’s breakthrough moment as an artist.
For with book covers, he saw a way he could paint words onto his paintings and it looked to him like they really belonged there. His work does recall other word painters like Ed Ruscha, famous for Oof and Music from the Balconies or Mel Bochner’s fabulous kinds of Blah, blah, blah. But those artists don’t use book covers and book covers change everything, suggesting an infinite unknown that is paradoxically digestible and, certainly in the case of Miller’s covers, much more limited than it seems to be trying to be.
Miller’s covers aren’t clean and neat, but they once were, especially those that look like self-help style psychology books of the 1960s and 70s with geometric designs. Where the covers were once white they are now grey, or yellowy grey, and, despite all the strong lines and colours of the book title and design, the bottom of the paintings look a drippy mess. Think very rainy, cold England day when the book in the bag got wet, and you pulled it out in a warm cafe over a mug of tea and began carefully to turn the dampened pages. That’s what the dripping is supposed to evoke, but then it might suggest all kinds of wonderful creative chaos that underlies many a neat and tidy product. Some covers in the current exhibition are a positive painterly mess as if the book stayed in a puddle for a week, like Thought after Filthy Thought and In Shadows I Boogie.
Miller’s book covers, or paintings of book covers, are funny in a wry, smart sort of way: I’m so Fucking Hard, by Ernest Hemingway, Tonight we make History (I can’t be there), Death — What’s in it for me? From the current exhibition, I especially like Reverse Psychology Isn’t Working, Immediate Relief . . . Coming Soon, The Future — You Might Not Like It Now . . . But You Will, and the pair, Why Breathe In? and Why Breathe Out? The need to laugh out loud is just there in an exhibition of Miller’s work, but sometimes that’s not easy in an art gallery. Go ahead, see the exhibition and do it anyway, or come on my tour and we can laugh together. The world needs a lot more laughter at paintings, with paintings and in galleries.