“So, is Harland in London?” I ask his exhibition liaison at White Cube. “Yeah, he is, he’s just had his Film on Sunday event at Bermondsey and he’s around for a few days before he goes to Italy; just give him a call and see if he’s free”.
When I call Harland to arrange an interview I ask him what films he showed – “Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy”, he tells me, “so it was a [director John] Schlesinger event, really. But I chose them because they are both about reinvention and escapism, which are themes in my work”.
We have a short exchange but Harland is booked up with various appointments and an imminent solo show opening in Italy, so we arrange to meet the following week at his studio in South London. When he pulls up in a white Merc’, window down, shades on I feel… pleasantly reassured.
Pretty much anything you read or hear about Harland will mention how ‘cool’ he is, and although I’ve always thought it was true, it also jarred with me as I felt it was a bit dismissive – as if those descriptions somehow meant his work was being reduced to a media sound bite. Yeah, he’s friends with Jarvis Cocker, he wrote a cult novel, and has modelled for Dunhill; hell, the first time I met him he was having tea and toast with Paul Simonon; but seeing him again now, I realise what was bugging me. Harland isn’t cool in the trendy, rock star kind of way that the casual style icon tag implies; it’s not really about the clothes, the looks or even that he’s a genuinely nice guy – those are just the extras. When it comes to Harland Miller, being cool is only just the beginning.
I became aware of Harland’s paintings in the early 2000s, and since then I’ve always thought of him as the elusive YBA. He is represented by White Cube, is friends, and has made work with, the core (YBA) contingent but is rarely, if ever, mentioned in any grouping of that generation of artists. This is partly due to the fact that after graduating from Chelsea Art College in the late ’80s, he left London for Paris, via New York, and didn’t return until almost a decade later, and when he did settle back down to work it was at his typewriter.
“I’d started writing a lot when I was abroad, through this sense of being homesick, maybe, I don’t know” he says. “When I was back in England and nobody wanted to buy my work, it was hard to keep the whole thing going. It was difficult to get anyone to be interested in painting, not just my painting, but painting; there were a few exceptions but the work I was doing then [in 1996] was a lot more like ‘sleeves rolled up’ kind of painting; there was nothing particularly conceptual about it, so it couldn’t pass in any way. So logistically it was hard to paint; especially because the paintings were big, it was much easier to just wake up and walk over to my typewriter – and it was a typewriter, actually, I started writing on an Underwood Noiseless, which was actually really noisy, I remember: clack, clack, clack…”
It still seems a pretty big deal that Harland switched from making art to writing a novel, so I’m interested to know how that came about. He tells me that the proto version of his novel, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, was taken from a collection of several short stories that formed The Wigwam Diaries. The Wigwam being the name of a place that he lived in after he left school. He explains:
“My family had moved to York and my dad was making Black Magic, the chocolate version, and I ended up making Black Magic for a while as well. I was living with mates from school and going through to Leeds to these futurist nights and there was Mark Almond there and people like that who were doing interesting things at that time… So I wrote about the characters I met, retrospectively, and the Bowie character [Ziggy Hero] was just one of them. It got kind of picked up on by a production company who were producing a Bowie night for Channel 4 and they said ‘we’ve got a budget for a half-hour lm about how Bowie has affected this generation’. Somehow they’d seen these short stories and they said we’d like you to write a script and base it on that character, Ziggy Hero. I’d never written a script before, so I thought the best way to do that is write this story up fully then adapt it, and so the story started to flesh itself out. While I was doing that, and while the story was getting more involved and I was getting more immersed in it, they kept calling me up and saying ‘it’s twenty minutes now and there isn’t such a big budget’, but irrespective of that, I’d crack on and they’d call up again and say ‘it’s ten minutes and there’s no money’. I think it ended up as ‘it’s five minutes and you pay us’… I said, ‘well, thanks guys, but I’m actually onto something bigger now.’”
Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty was published in 2000. The book is set in 1980 and adheres to the kitchen-sink tradition of ‘40s/50’s realism which took its inspiration from everyday life: stories about men fighting the monotony of a ‘pre-destined’ path, injected with humour and affection without recourse to cliché or cynicism. Slow Down Arthur’ picked up the baton from this genre specifically books like Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but moved the story along by introducing creative possibilities then filtering in from pop music. Harland tells me “For me it was a book about a person who’s imagination couldn’t accept his circumstances, the fact that that person had chosen to live in a Bowie fantasy was sort of irrelevant, it was more the fact that it was to do with escapism and re-invention, re-invention through fantasy… any combination of those three things”.
The book bridged the frank realism of the ’50s with the turn-of-the ’80s political climate, and charted how an ostensibly one-sided ‘friendship’ ultimately leads the protagonist Billy ‘Kid’ Glover out of the dead-end gloom of small-town northern England. Slow Down Arthur’ earned Miller his cult credentials, then a solo show at White Cube in 2002 confirmed that his paintings were just as relevant as those of his YBA counterparts. By that time British art was ring on all cylinders and with BritPop, BritArt and BritLit cemented in public consciousness it must have been a great time to be a part of it all.
Harland remembers; “What happened in the art world was revolutionary, young artists like Damien appearing on the front covers of Sunday supplements was unheard of…”
And continues; “Some of the younger people in the Lit world were looking at what was happening in the art world and thinking ‘why can’t we re-invent the literally world and make it more exciting and accessible to working class people and ethnic minorities not just the same bunch of people”.
Back to 2012, and with a second novel and numerous exhibitions under his belt Harland is now recognised equally as a writer and painter. Looking around his studio (and considering he’s recently opened a solo show), it is surprisingly filled with work – he has to move paintings to show me those underneath. There are finished and unfinished paintings and large works on paper. I’m cautious as I walk round not to step on watercolours that have been laid out to dry across the floor. The studio itself is not the airy, organised white space that you might expect; it’s horseshoe shaped with a quirky double level in the middle that hosts a kitchen upstairs and a printing area downstairs. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a studio that was so full of activity and ideas. Of course, there are books dotted around everywhere – in cabinets and piled up on the floor– but also sitting on shelves, face out. I tell him that I’ve never seen books displayed like that. “I’ve always put books like that”, he says. “I have them like that at home too.”
As I look from one classic paperback to the next I’m thinking about the story behind how Harland Miller’s trademark Penguin series came about, and how it reads more like a passage from a Paul Auster novel than by anything Harland would pen. In the late ’80s, a Chelsea School of Art graduate leaves London to show work with a gallery in New York and ends up living there before he meets a French girl and moves to Paris. He makes paintings from images lifted from second hand pulp book covers until one day he happens upon a battered Penguin Classic outside a bookshop opposite Notre Dame Cathedral. Back in his studio, Harland’s current painting unconsciously takes on the appearance of the small book that he’s just bought home with him and so beings a series of works that merge pop art, text art and abstract expressionism.
This romantic version of Harland’s younger life appears so different to the ‘semi’ autobiographical voice that narrates Slow Down Arthur’. It’s a pivotal moment that Harland has spoken about many times and I wonder if he was aware, as it was happening, that he was experiencing an almost perfect moment for a young artist, or that it is only apparent in hindsight. I ask him if he ever feels that he is, in effect, a character of his own creation?
“Yeah, I think that could be true”, he says. “Definitely as a writer; writers spend a lot of time on their own, artists do, too; they spend a lot of time looking at things. The two things together – having a visual awareness as an artist and being an habitual ‘noticer’ of potential stories – those two things together do kind of create this instant narrative. But it’s more than that; it’s a visual narrative that’s running through your head. I think that’s something that just happens.”
The artist/writer sensibility has definitely had a strong influence on how the text on Harland’s paintings has developed and although the graphic is taken from book covers the titles are his own, he explains:
“When I was in Paris, I used to go and look for these [pulp] books along the Left Bank, and I found the same kind of books [in French] but I didn’t understand the titles; so that’s when I started to invent my own titles. That was the bit, as a would-be writer, that I enjoyed the most. I always figured that to write a book it must be great to finish it and come up with a title; so it was a kind of romantic idea that this would be a book that I would write”.
Harland has described the small Penguin paperbacks that he worked from as being nostalgically British. Their simple graphic and colour coding now synonymous with bringing literature to the masses, but when Harland started re-working the covers, he reveals, it was mainly because they provided a perfect grid to work within.
“When I did find those [Penguin] books in Paris, not only were they nostalgic for England, but they threw all the focus onto the text, because they seemed very empty apart from that. It doesn’t seem empty to me now, they seem full of stuff, but at the time, compared to most book covers, they seemed empty. The thing that you see, when you see one of those book covers, is the title, and I thought that was great, because I had discovered I liked inventing these [kind of] titles. I don’t want to go through the whole process of painting a blonde on a bed just to then give it some text – just cut straight to the text and let other people come up with the visuals when they read the text.”
I ask Harland if he thinks that the physical distance provided by life in Paris allowed him to view and develop his paintings in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had he been in England. “Maybe not, it’s possible, not…” he replies.
What came out of these ‘invented’ titles was a very particular British humour/provocation that is evident in paintings such as; Doncaster, No Time Like The Past, or Dirty Northern Bastard – D.H. Lawrence.
On face value it’s convenient to call Harland’s work ‘text painting’ and, of course, the use of enlarged book covers humourously suggests that the paintings are well aware of their superficial nature. But not only does the transcription celebrate the physicality of the books themselves – the transformational process also turns a modest, dog-eared Penguin cover into a monumental, sustained painting. Sure, at first, this follows Warhol, but that’s only half the picture (pun intended). Harland’s work isn’t just about engaging the everyman Penguin packaging a la Campbell’s soup tins; it’s not just about employing e Readymade in order to borrow and subvert meaning.
So what is going on here? There is a painting in Harland’s studio; a mid- sized work propped up on a board. The painting looks almost finished but there is an empty space where the text would go; it’s like looking at a portrait with no face. It is evident from looking at it that, at this point, the paintings without the text do not feel complete. In an attempt to explain what Harland is doing in one sentence I might say these paintings connect a style of grand American abstraction with the straight talking, wry humour of working class northern England and the pop graphic of no-thrills commercial packaging. However, as you experience the physicality and lyricism of the paintings you can’t help but try to reconcile those very incongruent meanings. The idea of painting as a quest for the sublime is evident in the hard-won feel of the physical negotiation (man and material) and the vast thin washes which produce a dreary, perhaps English version of Rothko’s metaphysical subdued light. Simultaneously, painting as a visual language resorts to the written word, describing human failings that echo those in the act of painting. Ultimately these two languages, the painted and the written, which are inherently distinct, find a common ground.
Harland’s new paintings feature the masts of the Penguin Plays series, with his own titles inserted. Now, however, they seem much more psychological in tone. Humour is still present, but it’s pitched further back. Likewise, a new series of obituary paintings imply that he is moving into darker territory. One of these, Obituary painting for John DeLorean, 2011 (named after the American automobile designer whose early ’80s marque proved misbegotten, despite a gull-winged DeLorean being the ‘star’ of the movie Back to the Future) is propped up against the wall beside a large glass-doored cabinet filled with books. Harland picks up the book that the image is taken from and holds it up, in front of his painting. I’m looking at him picking up the tiny roughed-up book from the cabinet and I can see his reflection in the glass doors. It makes me think about something he said a few moments earlier: “My favourite review that I got for that book [his debut novel], well not my favourite, but one that I liked and which I wanted them to put on the front cover, said: ‘There is a ghost story in here if you want It’”.
Harland was talking specifically about Slow Down Arthur’, but this sentence and the idea of underlying meaning is prevalent everywhere in his work. From a teenager in York where he sensed that “there was this contrast between what I thought I was doing and what I was actually doing”, to the way he went to New York and developed a career in parallel with his London- based peers, who were busy reinventing British art with media-savvy conceptual installations, while Harland was making (traditional) paintings and writing short stories. Even a recent series of paintings he made nominally ‘about’ the Yorkshire Ripper, were actually about a hoaxer “who was obsessed with the Ripper”. Weirside Jack, as he was known, was the sub-plot: the story within the story. It’s as if Harland is constantly documenting a different time, or an alternate version of given events. So, it is not surprising that the idea of a ghost story rang true for him, or that it creates layers of meaning that resonate in both his writing and his painting. As he says, “I look back on things all the time; I’m very rarely in the moment.”