The White Cube, Hoxton was the at the beating heart of the YBA-movement in the late 90s and early noughties and has produced shows by some of the most infamous British artists of our era. This month, it finally closes its doors and shifts attention to its still relatively new premises on south London's Bermondsey Street. It's fitting then that it's final show should be The Next Life's On Me by the celebrated Yorshire-born Harland Miller, a central member of said movement famed for bringing a series of large-scale canvasses to the world based on Penguin first-editions, in which he raised countless wry smiles with astutely witty works, such his classic faux-Ernest Hemingway book cover: "I'm So Fucking Hard". This show, however, brings closure to that very successful series and feels altogether darker in tone and concerns, with large viscous, funereal abstract scenes painted on metal bearing titles such as "New Faces In Hell" placed alongside obituary paintings for the likes of Charles Adamms. Here, the acclaimed artist tells AnOther why his new work is actually a return to his beginnings and how watching The Addam's Family with the sound turned down had a profound effect on him as a child.
How does it feel to be the artist doing the last ever show at White Cube, Hoxton Square?
I didn’t know it was going to be the last show. They didn’t tell me because it was a secret and I couldn’t be trusted not to blab. What’s kind of odd is that these paintings are quite fitting though – I think some people will think that we’ve planned it this way. I mean, the title of the show is The Next Life’s On Me, but it's just coincidence…
There is a funereal aspect to the works. It’s got a feeling of exploring mortality and the eternal… Do you feel it's quite different to the work you’ve done before?
Well, nicely people have been saying, what do you call it when you make a step up? An arrival? I don’t know… But it's not actually that different. I’m going back to what I was doing twenty-odd years ago in both these sets of paintings. I originally started making paintings of books but they were more like pulp fiction – Penny Dreadful, Damnation Alley; that kind of thing. I made a lot of those kind of books and it was only when I was in Paris that I found the Penguin books. Obviously, I must have seen them a million times in England but I saw them in Paris and they sort of seemed isolated. I could never understand the titles because I never learned to speak French, so I used to make up my own titles and it kind of threw all the focus on to the text, and that became the series that took over. I’m actually just re-visiting a very old idea now, but I’m doing it in a better way.
There's a sense of John Martin's apocalypse paintings in New Faces In Hell. What’s the significance of the title?
I had the title but didn’t have a painting for it. When I was doing the obituary paintings in this show that had been a title that I’d thought of for an impressionist – I don’t mean like Cezanne, I mean like Mike Yarwood. I thought of doing composite pictures of all the people that he’d impersonated over the years, then I realised he wasn’t actually dead! I kept the title on the side and I was looking at a painting in the studio and I suddenly saw lots of different faces in this sort of volcanic lava. I thought: 'Oh yeah, that painting actually suits the title…' The funny thing is that you never see nice things in these new pictures. You’re never going to see anything beautiful. They kind of act on you in the way that LSD does in some ways – although, of course, some people have good trips, don’t they? I never did…
"The funny thing is that you never see nice things in these new pictures. You’re never going to see anything beautiful. They kind of act on you in the way that LSD does in some ways – although, of course, some people have good trips, don’t they? I never did…"
New Faces In Hell. The Next Life's On Me – is there something going on here of getting a bit older and being more aware of mortality?
I guess I used to think about death in a post-Joy Division, quite juvenile sort of way when I was young, then I stopped thinking about it… Death is quite a seductive subject for musicians, poets and artists, but I think as you get older – and you get closer to it – you actually start making bright collages and painting happy roundabout sculptures. I thought about death a lot more after my sister died because we were very close, but the title for the show just sort of came to me really… I had this image of a guy drinking a glass of whiskey from the back of some kind of colour supplement from the 70s. It's actually the image on the invite for the show. He’s holding up a whiskey glass, and the glass is in sharp focus while he’s sort of in the background. His expression seemed a bit uncertain and I think it must have appealed to me at the time because I was reading Billy Liar On The Moon and he was talking about the next drink and saying: 'The next round's on me, I insist!' I hadn’t heard that for a while – the next round's on me – and because I was surrounded by these paintings about the next life the two things just kind of came together.
What fulfils you when you are making these massive pieces? It's all quite wild, viscous and abstract. How do you know when the work is finished?
Well, strangely enough it is quite apparent. It’s difficult… I mean I’ve only just started this series and I’m still trying to work out how to do them. You have to paint them on the floor. They start off in a very free way, like an action painting, and it's really free this first hour of throwing paint on – then things start to happen of their own accord, and that’s when the real painting starts to happen; that’s when you preserve something – which is great – but you need to keep painting the rest of the picture, and the paint is moving all the time. They’re the most demanding pictures I’ve ever done because they have to be painted on these heavy metal frames – a canvas couldn’t support the weight of the paint. Also, you can’t really paint them by moving the paint around yourself that much, so you have to kind of move the painting around – it's really fucking exhausting.
How much do you feel that your character is defined by Yorkshire as you’ve gotten older? A lot of people are very sure of themselves because of their Yorkshire heritage…
I’m actually trying to resist that thing – the 'sure, I’m from Yorkshire mate, so it's alright…' thing. I mean, I’m sure of the work when I finish it, but it's only when you’ve finished it that you consider how other people might respond to it. I don’t think about other people’s reaction to the pictures when I’m making them, but I think about my reaction – you can’t just do anything and think: 'That's alright. I’m from Yorkshire, so fucking like it or lump it.'
Is there any particular book that shaped you as a young person?
My dad was a bit of a dreamer and worked in a factory. He used to go to sales rooms in Leeds and buy job lots of books in boxes – always dreaming about finding a first-edition. One thing he did get was the very first Addams Family book, which was great. I don’t know how old I would have been but the sound had bust on our telly and I remember seeing the Addams Family and not knowing it was a comedy at all. There was Morticia Addams in a coffin in a low-cut gown and to me there was sex and death contained in this one image. That influenced me because when I found the book I was avidly reading it. That sentence in the painting Are you unhappy darling… Oh yes, yes, completely has affected me all these years. Anyone who hasn’t checked out the early Addams Family writing should do. There was a lot of neurosis in there – it was like the flipside to the American dream.
And you have "Love Saves The Day" in here… Is that something you believe in?
I think it is. I’m constantly vacillating between being a hippie and being quite cynical. I think that wax and wane is probably quite good. I'm paraphrasing but F Scott Fitzgerald said an artist is someone who can hold two polar opinions and yet remain completely themselves. I think that juxtaposition is in the works in the upstairs room. They seemed like a good way to officially end the Penguin series – replacing the Penguin logo at the bottom with an overly romantic HM book skull logo. It was the most appropriate place to end the show because I’m not doing the Penguin series anymore. I’ve been saying I’m not doing them anymore for the last two years, to be honest, but as soon as I say that people go: 'But hang on, I liked those – in fact, I wanted one!' Well, fucking hell, you've had five or six years to buy one…
Harland Miller: The Next Life's On Me is at White Cube Hoxton Square until December 22.
Text by John-Paul Pryor