It all started with peanuts. In a sweet and praiseworthy act of loyalty, a young Harland Miller deliberately sabotaged his 11 plus exams to stay close to his best friend, Dean Robinson. Ironically, his friend ended up passing, whereas Miller ended up in the remedial group, commonly referred to as peanuts. He was clearly a smart kid, but his mishap had landed him in with the low achievers. Because these kids were effectively seen as right offs, any sign of talent was encouraged, and Miller, showing a flair for art, was asked by his teachers to mock up keep-tidy posters. He ended up spending a lot of time in the art room where he developed his skills and passion for art. If it wasn’t for peanuts, who knows, regular attendance in class might just have restricted his creativity. There’s a moral in that somewhere.
This is just one of many anecdotes that Miller recounts throughout the duration of our conversation, revealing a man who has both a knack for telling stories and a penchant for good conversation. He is loquacious and digressive but engagingly so, and if it were not for time slots and parking metres to rattle against, I would quite happily have talked till the sun came down.
I meet Miller on the morning of the launch of his solo exhibition at the Baltic. Entitled Don’t Let the Bastards Cheer You Up, the show is a collection of paintings made or adapted specifically for the gallery, and includes his signature bad weather paintings and re-imagined penguin classics, three new pieces dealing with the legacy of the Yorkshire Ripper, and four actual typewriters on plinths. There is a strong theme of words and writing, which given Miller’s talents as a writer, is hardly surprising.
“I never really saw my future as being a writer,” says Miller as he reflects on how he ended up carving up a career as an author, “I had moved away from England, lived in different countries, and begun to get more of a sense of who I was. It was then I started to write down things for myself.”
This was fairly rudimentary at first, but a visit to England to see his dad, who was suffering from a type of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s disease, changed his way of recording things.
“My dad had started sending me letters, which he had never done before. He was writing this vivid sort of snatches of wartime memory, really weird and curious stuff, about people who were killed and the strange circumstances (of the time), and they were intriguing. I always wanted to ask him about them, but by the time I was able to see him, the memory had gone.”
This prompted Miller to write “these great complete diaries” in case something were to happen to him, but they soon developed into something that was much more profound that mere records.
“In making an entry for that day, I would be reminded of something in my past and I would end up making a big diversion. Instead of writing a diary entry – usually a page max – I would find that I had written about ten pages with really little to do with what had happened that day and very much with my memory I had had. This became a literary style that I wanted to pursue.”
Miller still effectively a painter first and foremost, but on arriving back to England in the early nineties, he found that London was in the grip of conceptual art, the so-called era of the Young British Artists.
“Painting as I did it was really like the opposite of what was going on, which was very hard edged, things in glass boxes. This was the time when Damien and Jay started doing their thing, which was great for the art world in terms of the interest it generated, but it wasn’t great for me because at the time painting was very much a no-no and it wasn’t fashionable. I couldn’t really get anyone to look at my work, show it, write about it, curate it, or buy it… it wasn’t that people disliked it; it just didn’t have an outlet.
He had already developed the technique and style that he would eventually become famous for, a sort of quintessentially northern English abstract expressionist pop art signature that echoed the likes of Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, and even Andy Warhol, but simply put, the timing wasn’t right.
“I ground to a halt and it didn’t bother me at all. I found that it was logistically easier to get up in the morning and walk over to my typewriter – the underwood noiseless – and start hammering out these memoirs, these short stories.”
These stories would make for a good novel said his friend, who passed on Miller’s work to his agent.
“What I thought would appeal to maybe 20-30 blokes in the north east, she said was actually really commercial and capable of selling thousands of copies. From not expecting to have sold it, I got a six-figure offer. It was a shock and quite convenient because when I came back from abroad, people didn’t really know my (art) work.”
A drugs overdose gave him a case of writer’s block and he turned his attention back to art.
“I found that painting was a lot more like therapy and it felt quite good. I think that with writing, you tend to write to make sense of the world, to a degree. I think that painting is a lot more about escapism and you don’t have to think too much about the world. Painting for a while was like my saviour, and I was very prolific during the time I was recuperating.”
Words still figured, he was after all painting book covers and bad weather paintings with edgy, funny, and satirical adaptations of classic titles and tacky slogans endemic throughout the UK. It was this work that would bring him to the mainstream art audience.
“It’s like back in the eighties when Glasgow was named ‘European City of Culture.’ They had a strapline – Glasgow smiles better… For me that immediately conjured up a Glasgow smile, which is like when someone slits your face open. Or like when your train pulls up to Oldham station. There’s an Oldham sign and beneath that it says ‘the home of the tubular bandage.’ It’s laughable and sad that that this is all some towns can come up with.”
There’s something of a mischievous romanticist in Miller. He’s wearing aviator glasses, tweed pants, and brown cowboy-like boots, which all reference vintage styles. He has typewriters on show – splattered and drowned in luminous paint – and as has already been said of his work, there is a strong sense of nostalgia and wistfulness emanating from the paintings at the Baltic. It’s as if the past is his muse, and evidently, as we slightly deviate onto the topic of artificial intelligence, computer-generated graphic design, and the magic of the smell, touch, and texture of paintings and books, he expresses a sort of distant sadness at the ubiquity and over-reliance of technology in today’s world:
“Technology, I don’t know, I don’t know what part that plays in my future…”
Indeed, a lot of what Miller does is set in the past or responds to themes of heritage and history. Take for example his new work, The Consequence of a Failed Illusion (I, II, and II). These three paintings not only recreate the physical realism of decaying posters succumbing to the force of nature, but they also reconstruct the climate of fear that existed during the time Peter Sutcliffe was committing the murders. They’re noticeably darker than his other work. The images are decrepit, sinister, and poignant because of both his Yorkshire roots and the connection of the case to the North East through the pathetic and tragic actions of Wearside Jack.
“It’s started to enter the culture in a different way in Leeds. It’s been nearly 30 years and I thought in some ways these posters might actually bring people back to the reality of what it was like and the way I did that was to include images from that era that people could remember and relate to.”
He’s very introspective: it’s like he’s in a state of perpetual pondering with a necessity to re-examine things. Every time I ask Miller a question you can see it in his eyes, this brilliant process of remembering things, which in turn throws up new questions, new ideas to ruminate on. Among other things, we talk about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, about northern machismo, Jack the Ripper, and what young people know about Churchill. His subject matter is wide and interesting, and we could go on, but the rule of time must be obeyed.
He’s a man of many words and although you wouldn’t think it on first impressions, his art goes much deeper than the depth of the canvas on which they’re painted. Spend some time at the Baltic and get to know what Miller has to say.
Article published at Dazed Digital