If there were nothing else to be said for the Yorkshire born painter, Harland Miller’s, exhibition Tonight We Make History (P.S. I Can’t Be There) at Blain|Southern’s Berlin gallery space, it could at least be said to be supremely timely. There is a very British, perhaps it’s better described as English, sense of anxiety about the paintings Miller brings together for the show. Referencing the cover designs of Penguin Books’ Pelican series of popular educational texts, Miller’s works – as close to literally as possible – wear their anxiety on their sleeves. The spacious downstairs gallery of Blain|Southern shows fourteen large-scale canvases of imagined covers for texts in popular psychology. These notional texts belong about as far from the self-help section of quality booksellers’ shops as possible. All the works bear Miller’s name as author and have titles like “Happiness: The Case Against”, “Back on the Worry Beads”, “Another Non Doctor Afternoon” and “Armageddon Is It Too Much To Ask”? Any British person following the current events convulsing the Sceptr’d Isle could be forgiven for answering the Miller’s question about Armageddon with a grimly definitive “Apparently not”.
The koan-like quality of creating covers for books that cannot be opened is one of the most engaging conceptual aspects of the exhibition. Perhaps Miller, himself a writer, could be said to be making a point about the futility of seeking answers to the anxieties of life in books, or perhaps he is making a more painterly argument. The “covers” of his unopenable books are at times sharply realist in their representational concerns. The cover of Miller’s vision of a putative Domme’s polemic, “Health and Safety is Killing Bondage”, or the demonstrably passe plea for tolerance, “Hate’s Outta Date”, could have been produced by the butterflycollared graphic design department of 1970s Penguin itself, but the more unresolved brushwork, reminiscent in its frayed geometrics of the work of Peter Joseph, seen in “Bull Seeks China Shop” makes no pretence of verisimilitude. The disconnect called to mind a lyric by another group of anxious, literate Englishmen from the North, The Wave Pictures. In one of their minor classics, “Strange Fruit for David” – another grimly timely title – the singer, David Tattersall, observes that “A sculpture is a sculpture. Marmalade is marmalade. A sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture, but it isn’t marmalade.” A painting is a painting, a book is a book, a painting of a book is a painting but it isn’t a book. It isn’t even a book cover, even should the image it contains some day feature on a book’s cover. It is when these kinds of visual tensions are most present and acute that the exhibition feels most successful. The smaller works in the upstairs gallery, particularly the “weathered” covers of the vintage editions of pseudo- books like “High on Hope”, and the work that gives the exhibition its title, “Tonight We Make History”, reinforce the tension between realism and painterly illusion that brings genuine depth to the conceptual soil Miller’s fictional nonfiction titles rake up.
Tonight We Make History (P.S. I Can’t Be There)
Potsdamer Strasse 77-87
Until 30 July
Images courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.