By Paul Cochrane for Aishti magazine
British artist Harland Miller is that relatively rare thing, an artist in the all encompassing definition of the word, being both an acclaimed author and a renowned painter.
Surging through the art world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Miller published his debut novel Slow down Arthur, Stick to Thirty in 2000. Being an artist, Miller wanted to design the cover to his novel.
“In my experience in the publishing world, which is different as an artist, I worked out that publishers think the book should do the work and people should not be seduced by the cover. When it came to the cover of my book I thought, no worries, I can do it,” says Miller.
“But the publishers said what I came up with looked ‘too second hand.’ We hit on a compromise, with the artistic team giving their input. But I ended up with the worst cover in the world. I definitely think this experience influenced my paintings and going for classic covers.”
The paintings Miller developed took a page out of Andy Warhol’s and Larry Rivers’ pop art book.
He artistically played around with a modern icon, the covers of Penguin books during their heyday, when the publisher democratized the British book market in the ‘30s by bringing out quality literature in cheap paperback form.
“I like pop art in that it can be appropriated,” says Miller. “And book cover design is not really a developed art form.”
Spinning this on its head, Miller took the remarkably simple covers of Penguin books – classics of graphic design that lack any artwork by emphasizing typography – and turned them into a form of art known as text- based art.
Painted on wall-filling canvases, Miller uses subtle – and not so subtle – titles to make a statement, like “Incurable Romantic – Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore,” “International Lonely Guy – My Story,” “Blonde, But Not Forgotten,” “Too Cool to Die” and “You Can Rely on Me – I’ll Always Let You Down.”
Miller also played with the dust jackets of classic works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh. An Edgar Allan Poe cover reads “Murder – We’ve All Done It.”
Miller followed this series with the Pelican book cover series, which he calls “the bad weather pictures.”
He’s currently working on a new series of paintings based on obituaries he reads in the newspapers. “The obituary paintings are always portraits in miniature of somebody. I started the series ages ago in Paris, when [British politician] Stephen Milligan died [of autoerotic asphyxiation] and I always wanted to do more. I’ve been collecting obituaries since then, choosing people I feel sorry for or ones that go un-noticed,” says Miller.
With his book cover series around for a decade, few are left for collectors to buy, but some nine were on sale during Miller’s first exhibit in Lebanon, “Have You Ever Stopped to Wonder Why You’re Not Here,” held last May in Downtown Beirut.