A Miller’s tales

The classic covers of Penguin paperbacks – originally created to bring culture to the working class – are being transformed by painter and writer Harland Miller into something just as subversive as the books once were, as Yolanda Zappaterra discovers

If you were an aspiring novelist trying to come up with a name for your hero, a mysterious, rootless, lonely figure who lives out of a suitcase, you couldn’t come up with a better name than Harland Miller, could you? This may well be why the real Harland Miller – a painter and writer – has named his forthcoming Rizzoli monograph of paintings depicting ersatz Penguin and Pelican book jackets after his 2002 painting International Lonely Guy… but there again, it may not be; in true mystery style, Miller was impossible to track down at the time of writing, so there was no way of asking him.

Whatever the reason for the book’s title, it’s a great one that continues a fine tradition of titles that Miller has been giving his paintings for more than a decade/ wry, knowing titles like Dirty Northern Bastard, DH Lawrence; International Incurable Romantic seeks Dirty Dilthy Whore; I’m So Fucking Hard – Ernest Hemingway; Death – What’s in it for me?; John Holmes – One-Way Donkey Ride to Hell; and Whitby: The Self-Catering Years. Each of these paintings mimics the cover of a classic Penguin book, using the grid with its three horizontal bands showing the imprint name, title and logo, but using paint and the titles themselves to convey a number of different things, among them a sense of nostalgia, of quintessential Englishness, of sardonic humour, of maleness, of a painter who loves words and a wordsmith who loves paint. With their dripping paint and pronounced layers creating a sense of battered, old paperbacks, they’re evocative not just of eras and places long gone, but also of the way we personalise books, intentionally and accidentally. And Miller’s made-up titles enable further connections; precisely because they’re made up, we bring our own connections to them, separate from the ones Miller makes through the combination of content and form, and from the ones an author would create for us.

Miller began this work while he was living in Paris, where he’d decamped to in the early 1990s after completing a BA, then an MA, at Chelsea College of Art & Design, followed by two years in New York. The Penguin books were not the first books Miller painted, but finding a load of Penguin Classics at a second-hand bookstore near Nôtre Dame, he formed a bond with them that was initially about homesickness and nostalgia, but would come to encompass and cross-reference other aspects of his interests: writing (as verb and noun), painting and popular culture. Penguin books in this context were interesting for a number of reasons, as Miller explains in four interviews that make up the text of the monograph, with artist Ed Ruscha, singer and ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, film-maker Sophie Fiennes and writer Gordon Burn. First, the covers suggested a grid that was happily similar to the effects achieved by Miller’s overpainting and flat, 1950s aesthetic; second, with no photography to detract from the title and impart ideas to the viewer/reader, they had an appealing starkness.

Miller found that the colours and typography play their part too, not just in the colour-coding by book type (orange for popular fiction, blue for biography, yellow for miscellaneous collections, brown for religion, green for crime and purple for essays and letters), but also by the way that the drama of different colours and type affects words.

And, finally, there was the ‘everyman’ context of the books: Penguin paperbacks first appeared in 1935 with the express aim of bringing culture to working people by making it affordable, and they worked like a dream, becoming instant classics that have continued to wield a fascination. By turning them into paintings, but disrupting their familiarity with his own titles and forcing the viewer to do a double-take, Miller is joyfully subverting the fact that Penguin books, once revolutionary, are now seen as safe, and using his hybrid skills to give them cross-cultural appeal once more.

International Lonely Guy by Harland Miller will be published in May, by Rizzoli New York, priced £25

Harland Miller will be in conversation with Jarvis Cocker on 16 May at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1

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