Harland Miller: Pop Psychology
Artist and author Harland Miller is best known for his paintings of imaginary book covers. Drawing on dark humor and the human condition, he writes new narratives in the guise of classic book designs. Branching off from the Penguin covers he became known for, Miller released a number of pieces inspired by the books on social science and psychology books that became popular during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The formal layout and abstract designs act as the perfect backdrop to Miller’s candid introspections on human suffering.
Abstract art rose to prominence in the 1930s and was reintroduced in the second half of the 20th century in forms like minimalism, geometric abstraction, and digital art. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, books centered around social behavior, self-help, and the human psyche took on a similar design. Bold colors and geometric shapes characterize this niche genre of vintage covers. Titles ranged from The Psychology of Learning Mathematics to Understanding Madness and The Divided Self. Whether the designs were meant to represent complex themes or were simply chosen for aesthetic purposes, they establish a clear connection between human thoughts and abstract art. Miller adopts this design to better suit the subject, creating a series of covers advertising mental anguish and a disordered reality.
The covers represent a rift between one’s experience and the perceived reality around them. Pieces like Overcoming Optimism echo a lone voice fed up with the external pressure to be happy and functioning. Miller advocates that a proclivity towards death and suffering can be just as valid.
Miller’s work is multidimensional. He not only references the genre of books, but he also uses some of the original context to inform more artistic choices like color palette. He explains, “I remember in one of these lectures they were talking about the ways color affected people psychologically. For instance, there was a certain type of yellow that made people feel violent. Then purple was a color that could induce people to feel suicidal. I’m very interested in the power of color.” Miller’s interest in human psychology extends beyond the books he chooses to imitate. His pieces force the viewer to confront thoughts they might have had themselves. This may explain why people are so attracted to his work, particularly his darker pieces. While it’s human nature to strive towards comfort and pleasure, there is something inherently satisfying about indulging the opposite. With the help of aesthetics, Miller’s work bridges the divide between universal and individual experiences that are usually left unspoken.