Harland Miller’s show York, So Good They Named it Once, including some 30 paintings, opened in York Art Gallery on 14 February and was originally due to run until the end of May, but with the museum now closed, the local audience are robbed of the chance to see these works in the flesh. The fact that this show has been (hopefully, only temporarily) postponed, is kind of fitting given Harland’s bittersweet MO. 

Miller is a painter who is also a novelist.  He is a natural storyteller; his paintings have one or two lines of text at most, but they tell a greater story, a jumping off point for an imagined life. Sometimes the words make you smile, you can’t help it, sometimes they’re camouflaged within the abstract shapes around them and act more like a functional, formal graphic. At other times, you feel those sharp chills reminiscent of quotes taken from famous novels or memorable one liners from films like The Godfather.  The text may steal the show and seem to be the main event in Miller’s work, but there’s much more to these paintings.

The Bad Weather Paintings, which namecheck the northern holiday towns of many childhood memories: Bridlington, Grimsby, Whitby and so on, are mostly flooded with pale layered blues, a direct reference to the Pelican book covers Miller has made his own. They’re a series within a series and, as their title suggests they effectively conjure up the bleak Northern weather; when you stand in front of them you can almost feel the cold on your cheeks. For me, these paintings come closest to Miller’s novel, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, not simply because they are set in and around Yorkshire, where the novel is based, but because of their humble sense of aspiration. Slow Down Arthur recounts a story of a bunch of young ‘misfit’ paths crossing and the glimmer of escapism and adventure that brings to the protagonist Billy Glover, set against the backdrop of a politically and economically depressed 1980s Yorkshire. There is one character who believes he’s destined for greatness and he becomes a kind of magnetic beacon of hope to the others. The idea that someone from that scene would want more is echoed in these paintings, except here it’s the towns themselves; for example, in the notion that York is comparable with New York (York, So Good They Named it Once), or replacing the glamorous oyster with a humble whelk (Grimsby The World is Your Whelk).

In the film that accompanies the show, Miller says: “The more I travelled the more I became defined by where I’d left”. He talks about the relationships that people have with their hometowns and the pull of familiarity versus the dream of escape. When Miller left Yorkshire it was the making of him, and as he implies in the film, it opened a route for his relationship with his own history to flourish, a relationship that he may not otherwise have discovered. These paintings are like visceral homesickness and nostalgia but are, by their very nature, statements of success and achievement.

It’s so typical that the art world would think ‘let’s curate this extensive mid-retrospective show of Harland Miller’s work in York Art Gallery’, in a ‘hero returns’ kind of way; it’s a huge deal for the gallery and the city and then a global emergency hits and the show is cut off in its prime. Even Miller couldn’t have made it up.

Gemma de Cruz