Harland Miller: More Than Words

Harland Miller: More Than Words

Words and images have existed alongside each other for generations, yet when the words become the main focus of the artwork, a compelling fresh form of understanding and interpretation is created. Text-based artwork has been dominating the contemporary art scene since the 1950s.  Artists such as Mel Bochner, Christopher Wool, Ed Ruscha, and Barbara Kruger, to name a few, famously incorporated text into their work. Yorkshire born artist, Harland Miller, became known in the 1990s for his Penguin Book Cover series, where he added his own fictional titles to the cover of penguin books.  Miller employs his art to marry elements from the ‘Pop Art movement’, Abstract Expressionism, Figurative Painting, and literature, drawing influence from artists such as Ed Ruscha.  

Inspired by the iconic Penguin Book covers from the 1950s and 1960s, Miller conceives and devises his own titles when composing his photo-realistic artworks. Miller’s adoption and use of the Penguin book covers and their well-known logo is intended to reference Penguin Book’s original aim from 1935, which was to print literature at an inexpensive rate, therefore, making it more accessible to the mass market. This concept of focusing on the mass market and consumer culture relates to that of Andy Warhol and Pop Art, therefore linking Miller’s works to Pop Art’s use of appropriation within pop culture. Furthermore, only painting and displaying the front cover of the book forces the viewer to fill in the missing pages, thus Miller is encouraging his audience to make their own assumptions, stories, and connections. 

Characterized by their strikingly bold colors and comical yet cynical use of language, these covers embrace often positive attitudes correlating with the theme of ‘self-help’.  Planting text within a pictorial and illustrated setting adds strength and a new dimension to the words, as they have been removed from their original contexts, deconstructing language itself. Miller’s eye-catching and somewhat nostalgic paintings reflect a unique perspective within the exploration of the relationship between words and images, similar to that of  Mel Bochner’s Blah Blah Blah’. In all of his works, Miller uses his own name as the author, alluding to his authorship over the artwork, while also blurring the lines between fact and fiction. 

“When I introduced text into my work, people used to write to me and tell me what my work meant to them…Some of these letters were very personal. One person asked me if they could use some of my text on their gravestone because they liked my irreverent attitude to death.” – Harland Miller. 

In 2016, Miller moved beyond the Penguin Covers and constructed new works, utilizing his own cover templates that are inspired by the pop psychology books of the 1970s and 60s, with titles such as Overcoming Optimism” and “Is it too much to ask?, and even with some works focused on only one word. He explains that “The idea is to make paintings that are just words, in contrast to the titles of previous works”. Additionally, Miller examines the significance that colors can bring to the interpretations of his works, claiming that  “if you made the same work in green, people would read the text differently. The same text would have a very different meaning but you would never really know why”.

“I focused on the words themselves and then focused in on them and in on them…I was wondering if one word could be as powerful as an entire sentence if one word could carry as much power as a phrase. And what I’ve found from the last series is that the answer to that is yes, actually. Certain words are pretty big for people.” – Harland Miller