When a printing press is repurposed into an art gallery, it seems only natural that a series of paintings of book covers would one day end up hanging on its walls. Gallery Blain Southern’s Berlin outpost, located in the repurposed printing hall of the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspeigel, recently wrapped up an exhibition by painter and author Harland Miller. The show, called Tonight We Make History (PS I Can’t Be There), was made up entirely of imaginary book covers with sarcastic, biting titles, all attributed to the artist himself, in a style that perfectly merges sharp graphic design with a traditional, abstract, painterly style.
Each work assumes the vertical orientation of a paperback book, with abstract, geometric designs convincingly adorning book covers. The books’ titles, though, are a bit less convincing—there's Health and Safety is Killing Bondage, and Overcoming Optimism, as well as If Your Past Were On Fire, Would You Go Back to Save It. Equal parts silly and cynical, a visitor walking around the gallery may feel like browsing a table of New York Times bestsellers from a different planet or unable to control a confused chuckle while deliberating which painting would make the funniest Instagram.
Born in Yorkshire, England, Miller studied at the Chelsea School of Art in London before moving to New York’s West Village in the 1980s and 90s. He then jumped around from New Orleans, to Paris, and finally landed in Berlin, where he’s lived for the past 25 years—although the show at Blain Southern is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Germany.
Penguin Books, on the other hand, was founded in 1935, with the goal of printing quality literature as inexpensive paperbacks for the mass market. The books were color-coded based on their genre—for example, fiction covers were orange, crime was green, or biographies were dark blue. Each cover also stuck to a strict, simplistic design strategy: a central band of white contained the book’s title in the Gill Sans typeface, while the color-coded top and bottom bands were adorned with the Penguin brand name and logo. Over the years, the publishing house has expanded their design strategy, but their covers remain iconic mainstays in any Barnes & Noble, which is what makes Miller’s Penguin paintings, and their sardonic titles, so viscerally amusing.
Despite playing with a format that is usually the domain of graphic design, Miller’s style is unquestionably painterly. The exposed sides of each canvas are layered in messy spillage of paint. Outside of the sharp, uniform text and clean lines, color fields are rough and richly layered. Sometimes, the artist chooses to leave drips of paint visible, especially at the bottom of his canvases, as if to remind the viewer that painting as an art form is alive and well, even when the products are exercises in macro images with potent viral potential.
Miller's playful engagement with the format of the book cover translates well into his other creative endeavors; Miller is also a novelist in his own right. In 2000, he published Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, a tale of one teenager’s small-town alienation, and adventures with a local David Bowie impersonator. The same year, he published First I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified, a novella inspired by obsessive-compulsive disorder and a series of polaroid photographs of an oven knob switched to “off.” His book cover paintings tease at dozens of stories equally as eccentric, and we only wish he would actually write the accompanying text.
Tonight We Make History (PS I Can’t Be There) was on view at Blain Southern in Berlin from April 30 to July 30, 2016.