Harland Miller: Imminent End, Rescheduled Eternally | White Cube

Harland Miller is a novelist as well as a painter, and his best-known works bring the two media together. I’ve seen (and loved) his large painted versions of imaginary Penguin book covers: the artist faithfully matched the typeface and colours of the classic series in his paintings, but added mordant titles of his own, with his own name always in the author’s slot.

He’s now taken over the large, coldly-lit White Cube space in Bermondsey, with 45 paintings and works on paper, all produced this year. Many of the works are in midcentury book-cover format, though he’s not pastiching Penguin any more, and even designed his own typeface for some of them.

Harland Miller at White Cube - installation view

Miller’s unmistakeable tone shines through in the painted titles of his imaginary books - funny phrases in both senses of the word. Examples here: ‘Demons are Forever’, ‘Imminent End Rescheduled Eternally’, or ‘Up as a Superposition’. But often in this show, these new large paintings have single-word titles: ’Numb’, ‘Nude’, ‘If’. The wordplay is pared back. And the shortest title makes the largest painting of all, the canvas taking pride of place in the main gallery. It barely resembles a book cover at all.

Miller’s breaking out of pastiche, and experimenting more with paint. The carefully-worked letters of If in particular, with their layers of splotches, marshalled across the huge canvas, almost seem like a rebuke to the careful copying of his earlier work. The letters are truncated - it looks more like it - and fully integrated into the colour blocks and drips that surround them. In his working of the paint, Miller seems to be aiming for earlier, gestural greats, like Asger Jorn (a named influence). Or maybe Jasper Johns, whose stencilled letters were always firmly subordinate to the compositions they featured in.

Harland Miller - ‘If’

The artist almost sounds sceptical of his own considerable power with words. “People read before they can stop themselves, it’s automatic,” he says. “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.”

He should be careful about that. I noticed that my fellow gallery goers hustled around the paintings with longer titles, that looked like book covers. They were clearly delighting in Miller’s phrasing, his novelistic wit. Commercial imperatives ought to play their part too: Miller reminds me of his compatriot David Shrigley, featured on here last year, not just for his offbeat humour, or his will-to-power productiveness, but also for his sellability. The droll phrases of his fake Penguins would work wonderfully on a mug or a rubber.

Is sellability why all the smaller works on paper are signed and numbered, even doodles of letters on graph paper? Are the spots and splotches of paint that accompany Miller’s pencil drawings careless fingerprints, part of his painterly experiments, or just value-building?

Miller will seal the deal with many visitors to the White Cube show, who’ll snap up the (very fine) new £80 Phaidon-published monograph, on sale at the gallery’s shop by the exit. That’s aimed at people like me who can’t afford a drawing, let alone a painting.

I’m sure people who buy it will mostly flip to those book covers, with their funny titles. Enjoyable works from a writer who paints.

Harland Miller: Imminent End, Rescheduled Eternally is at White Cube (London). 16 November 2022 - 22 January 2023