16 November 2022 – 22 January 2023
White Cube Bermondsey
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White Cube Bermondsey is pleased to present an exhibition of new paintings and works on paper by Harland Miller. Through the interplay of graphic idiom, typography, gestural abstraction and a rich palette of colours, the exhibition addresses what Miller calls ‘a perpetual imbalance’; between language and image, colour and form, the visual and the emotional.
Miller’s exhibition title, ‘Imminent End, Rescheduled Eternally’, is typically dark, suggestive and poetic, pointing to circularity and a process of building and dissolution that might also be a metaphor for his own painterly practice. In his new works, evolving from themes present in earlier series, Miller focuses on the language of paint; its materiality, seductive properties, colour range and styles of application. In particular, he draws on the gestural abandon of 1950s abstraction, the physical surfaces of Danish artist Asger Jorn, and the bright, saturated palette and iconography of Pop Art. At the same time, Miller unearths themes of anxiety, love and mortality, that are the foundations of the human condition.
It is the sardonic impact of the titles that provide the entry point for many of Miller’s works. Compared to Everything Nothing Matters (2022), Define Worried (2022), Demons Are Forever (After Asger Jorn) (2022), Hz So Good (2022), and In Shadows I Boogie (2022), are all derived from Miller's earlier work around the theme of books, in which authored titles are a painted element of the composition. In Compared to Everything Nothing Matters, the titular phrase – a linguistic dead end – sits across the bottom section of the canvas like a clue to the rest of the painted surface; a colourful abstraction clearly divided into three parts. Define Worried on the other hand, features a more singular image – a vivid abstract painting in pink, red, purple and orange, with a large circle and several rectangles of colour that recall the deep expanses of Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings and their association with intense mental states. Conversely, In Shadows I Boogie seems determinedly upbeat in tone, yet the shadows refer, as the artist states, to a more buried part of the psyche:
‘The shadows are the subconscious and one meaning of the phrase ‘to boogie’, is to disappear. There’s movement as well, which of course works more immediately with the accepted meaning of boogie, so, against the darkness, you get these brighter hues happening − like colours that stay on your retina when you blink − hot pink, electric blue, yellows and dirty whites set against the dark Mars black.’
In a group of hard-edge paintings that include Win, Vex, Nude and the diptych Far Out (all 2022), Miller uses mono or bisyllabic words with bold, blocks of colour. Painting the letters in a range of typefaces, through a process of isolating, overlaying and reconnecting, he creates a sense of depth in the image that deconstructs and abstracts the meaning of language itself. Simultaneously, the graphic rendering of the letters in paint, creates a tension between reading and looking. As the artist says:
‘People read before they can stop themselves, it’s automatic. Words offer a way into what you’re looking at, but no matter how integrated the text is, no matter how much you might think it's synthesised into the painting, there is this imbalance in terms of how much the words are doing as words. But because the text is worked out graphically, it looks like the opposite of struggle. It looks like something that is all there ready for you. I like the constant struggle, and the kind of perpetual imbalance.'
In many of Miller’s paintings, elements of drawing and underpainting are visible in the finished image. The black lines, evidence of previous sketched out forms, are trails of calligraphic script interrupting and decorating the surface, the trace of past thoughts and the subconscious at work. It is in the works on paper that Miller exposes the tension between words as carriers of meaning and as graphic shapes – each letter jostling to find their space within the limits of the paper, pushed to the edge of readability.
The trio of works Promises, Problems and Pressure (After Kishio Suga) (all 2022) feature singular words that are interconnected, offering a direction of thought that can alter depending on how they are read and understood: ‘Promises can obviously lead to pressure and pressure can lead to problems − you will probably find a similar order of events in most of Dante’s cantos or in Shakespeare.’ Using typography designed by Miller himself, each of the words has its own distinctive arrangement of letters, which seem to fight for space on the canvas. Influenced by the early works of American painter Al Held and his struggle to synthesise gesture with geometric form, Miller links his words to a methodology of style, in this case using a large, top heavy font that seems to loom over the viewer ready to topple forward into their space. Speaking about Problem, Miller says:
‘The "problem" is self-referential and talking about the problem of synthesising not just hard-edge, not just geometric painting with loosely applied paint, but also the introduction of text, another element that needs to be amalgamated.’
Pressure (After Kishio Suga), as the title makes clear, was painted in direct response to a work by the Japanese artist Kishio Suga. Suga had made a work from a plank of wood that he had painted yellow and worked into with an angle saw, creating cuts which read as black lines against the bright yellow ground. It is the quality of pushing something to the brink, that appealed to Miller:
‘Almost like warning chevrons. What he was working towards was to make as many saw cuts in the wood as he could without the plank snapping and splintering. Although it looks very beautiful, you know it’s at breaking point. I wanted to blow that up, enlarge it so that it would take on more fragility – like there was more at stake the larger the structure the greater the strain. That was one of the things that determined the specific size of the painting. It had to be bigger than the person looking at it - but still relatable somehow.’
Overcoming optimism (2022) and Up As A Superposition (2022) are characterised by sunny, warm palettes of yellows, pinks and oranges, exploring the potential of colour as a carrier of meaning and mood influencer. In Up As A Superposition, Miller surrounds the letters in a joyful kaleidoscope of yellows, fusing their forms with other gestures to leave the letters that push upwards towards the righthand corner, the only concrete forms within the composition. The interplay of the painted word, carrier of (multiple) meanings, and the expressive potential of passages of these bright, gestural marks, creates a space of precarious balance, self-deprecating affirmations at odds with the seductively abstract surface.
In Hz So Good (2022) and R U OK (2022) the artist deploys modern modes of communication, adopting the common abbreviations used in text messaging. Hz So Good makes a reference to Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, after whom the unit for measuring frequency is named, while at the same time, to the well known pop song, Hurts So Good. Demons are Forever (After Asger Jorn) (2022) is a re-working of a detail from one of Jorn’s paintings, to create a broodingly dark image that draws on the palette of 1950s abstraction as well as the era’s fashion for ‘self-help’ books. As Miller states, he is working ‘to try and encapsulate this idea of high and low culture, keeping two ideas going simultaneously’.
As if to cut short the potential meaning of language that characterises so much of the work, three Untitled (all 2022) paintings are the final series encountered in the exhibition. The word ‘untitled’ in bold back typography is set against monochromatic abstract compositions in white, yellow and unbleached titanium. Providing a pause or halting the flow of language within the exhibition, their sombre, highly textured and layered surfaces are the wilful accumulations marking making. Miller reflects:
‘Perhaps there is a very obvious perception that this has more gravity and so I like the way the title says nothing. I wouldn’t say that it confounds expectations – ‘untitled’ has always confirmed the work is beyond words – but there's a kind of purity to it that I love. I’ve never been able to use it... until now that is.’
3 WISHES 4 EVER (2022) by Harland Miller is a set of three screen prints presented in a clothbound clamshell case, each print bearing a single word – Kiss, If and Boss – alongside the artist’s name. Joining Miller’s now iconic series based on book covers, the prints take the form of the cover design for a novel. The top section of the work a complex graphic layering of letters in a bright pinks, soft blues and strong reds, is counterbalanced by a clean band of neutral colour bearing the title and author/artist’s name. This graphic rendering of the upper part of the print, subtly undermined by the painterly language of 1950s abstraction visible at the very bottom edge.
Each of the words deployed by Miller are laden with promise, for as Miller sees it, ‘it’s like three coins inside the fountain. Like wishing for a desire.’ While read together, their order shuffled any which way, they offer rich narrative potential in the imagination of the viewer.