23 January – 2 March 2002
Harland Miller presented a series of paintings based on the dust jackets of Pelican and Penguin paperbacks. Each of Miller’s images mimic the cover of one of these classic books, being divided into three horizontal bands that feature, respectively, the imprint name, the cover title, and the eponymous bird, a logo in the middle of an awkward take-off.
The paperbacks on which the paintings are based were instrumental in the democratisation of the published word, first appearing in the summer of 1935 and costing only sixpence (at the time, the same price as a packet of cigarettes). These titles covered biography, crime and fiction, and were colour-coded for easy classification; a colour band on the cover of each book denoted its genre—biography was dark blue, crime green and fiction orange. These reasonably-priced paperbacks became instant classics, passing through generations of readers, and coming to symbolise a form of barter or gift economy between friends and family.
While Miller's paintings mimic the look of a particular set of book jackets, their simple bands of colour also reference the colour-field painting of the 1950s, especially the works of Mark Rothko. Although his canvases are visually emphatic, reflecting a kind of Abstract Expressionist flatness, they also blur the boundaries between the visual and the textual since, ultimately, they represent bodies of writing. This hybrid dynamic reflects artist's career as a whole; Miller is a writer as well as a visual artist (his debut novel, Slow Down Arthur Stick to Thirty, was published in 2000).
Painterly and soft-edged, Miller’s pictures evoke the way in which books, and paperbacks in particular, become personalised by marks made by their owners: dog-eared pages, coffee stains and inscriptions transform the mass-produced into something intensely personal. The images also have a nostalgic and moody atmosphere—they are bad-weather paintings, looking like they have been rained on. It is this ‘weathering’, combined with titles that name Yorkshire towns (Bridlington—Ninety Three Million Miles from the Sun; Doncaster—No Time Like the Past; and Whitby—The Self Catering Years), that declare these pictures to be quintessentially English, and reference the grim but glorious North of England, where Miller grew up.