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The French Letter Paintings — Harland Miller at White Cube Paris
Interview by Dan Thawley
British artist Harland Miller in conversation with A Magazine Curated By‘s Editor in Chief Dan Thawley,
on the occasion of ‘French Letter Paintings’, White Cube Paris, September 2021.
Dan Thawley Here we are in Paris, welcome. Have you shown in Paris many times before?
Harland Miller No, actually, this is only my second show in Paris. The first show was twenty five years ago when I lived here in 1991.
D Who did you show with back then?
H Louis XIV Gallery, which was run by these two brothers, Paul and Benjamin. Benjamin opened it on Rue de Varenne, which is a snazzy street, in the ‘fond de coeur’ of a beautiful church. That was a great show, actually.
D Paintings, I assume?
H There was some sculpture in the show, but mainly painting. And painting wasn’t fashionable at the time. It had gone out of fashion pretty much overnight, like a guillotine had come down on New Year’s Eve and the 80s were over. Painting is a romantic activity, even if what you’re painting isn’t romantic. I wonder if the romance of painting disappeared in the hard reality of the 90s…war, recession, etc. This harder-edge, more conceptual art came in and it was a very difficult time for painters. But I romanticized the idea that Paris would be a place where paintings could still fly. And it was. People enjoyed the fact that you were painting. You move to a place and you don’t think about it. You’re a year in and you don’t think about it. You can even be two years in and then you start to think, start to lose touch with people back home and make new friends. Three years in and then you think, “Jesus, do I live here now?”
Back when Comme des Garcons was using real people for their fashion shows, I took part in a fashion show here in Paris with some other artists like Mike and Doug Starn, and Robert Rauschenberg. Bob, as he liked to be called. One of the Comme des Garcons staff assigned him his own personal whisky monitor because he was drinking too much.
D Wow. That would have been quite an experience. Do you remember what year that was?
H Late 90s. I mean Rauschenberg was still alive obviously. It was when Comme des Garcons did a kind of grunge collection. I remember Bob liked the Dr. No look or that sharper look, but he was wearing this grungy cardigan. It was really just a series of threads that you had to organise around your body. My dad had one he did his gardening in. Bob was like, “Really…is this…no…” so whatever year that was when they did that.
D Were you writing at the time in Paris?
H I think so. I write all the time, even if I’m not trying to get anything published. I write because that feeds into my work. Or it used to at least, not so much now because I’m trying to use less language. I’m trying to use as little language as possible in my work now anyway. But back then I was interested in a very particular kind of sentence structure, so I was always writing. The text in my painting was culled from my writing. Writing was an unseen part of what I was doing.
D So that parallel has always existed between the two – did one start before the other? I’m assuming you started painting at a certain point, but were you always writing?
H I’m a painter who writes books, rather than a writer who paints. In fact, it was actually Paris where I began the Penguin Book series, and where I became more of a pop artist in a way. My dad used to collect books, and because he had no money, he used to go to sales and buy them in lots. You’d pay five pounds for a box of books but you weren’t allowed to really examine what was in the box. You’d get home and empty it on the floor. My dad would always fantasise that he was going to find some kind of first edition. He never did. It was always just manuals on how to fix your car or some borderline pornography. There were some classics but they weren’t first editions, and there were often these Penguins. I was the youngest of four, so he used to get me to come along with him. When he was pissed off because all the books were worthless, he would give me five pence to organise them into piles. Back then, I would organise them by categories suggested to me by the covers. If it was a book on how to manage a car, I would put that in the same pile as The Great Gatsby, because that had an old roadster on it. There would be another picture of a pornographic car magazine with a model laying over the bonnet, and that would go over with The Great Gatsby as well. This high and low culture, cheek by jowl, was starting to happen in my life and in my selection process.
I came to Paris and I started painting books, those Tin Pan Alley books as we used to call them. Pulp Fiction. I was painting Pulp Fiction, before Richard Prince for the record. When I got to Paris, there were plenty of second time bookshops where I would go and get references. They seem to love that genre here, but of course, they were in French. And when I first got here, I didn’t speak a word. There was no Google Translate, nothing. If I was alone in my studio with nobody else, I often wouldn’t be able to work out the title of the books. Instead I would just appropriate the imagery and change the text to be more personal about my life. That’s when I started to enjoy the text side more than the painting side. It became all about the text. I would make the painting in order to put the text on. When I saw the Penguin books, I noticed that the design throws all focus onto the text. That’s what I wanted. I never would have seen that in London because there are millions of those books. There’s an English bookshop on the Left Bank – Shakespeare & Co. I went in and saw this Penguin book, and it was a jolt from home. Seeing it out of context is the reason why this whole series started in Paris.
D I wanted to talk to you about a few things, but I thought to start with the double entendres. There’s so many layers in the works of double entendre, of playing with the language, of playing perception. What is your relationship with that idea? Are you trying to push against your own tropes now? Or is it the tropes of others that you like to play with? I’m curious about the process now, twenty five years after your first show here, how that plays into your mind. There’s a lot of that in your writing as well. It’s playful. It’s satire. There’s sort of a double edged sword. Has that always been how you approach things?
H Back when I was at secondary boarding school, I was put in a remedial group called 2W. Group one was good. Group two was alright. Group three was average. Group four was the core. Group five was terrible and criminally insane. I was in a group below that, which was not called group six. It was 2W. I don’t know what that stood for and I don’t want to know. Everyone called it Peanuts. The aim was to get us through school without destroying everything. Our teacher saw that we liked art so she made every lesson in arts. But it was the kind of school where everything had to have a practical application, so the headmaster said, “This is all very well, but get them to do something practical like ‘Keep our school tidy’ posters.” I painted all the staff coming into contact with litter and coming off second best, like the headmaster slipping on a banana skin. I didn’t know how these were going to go down. I painted the metalwork teacher with a plastic bag on his head. That was popular because it looked like he was committing suicide. Anyway, they were a big success. They framed them and put them up all around school.
The first time I felt good about myself, I was walking down the corridor when someone told me Big Chris was looking for me. Big Chris was the hardest kid in the world as far as I was concerned, certainly the hardest kid at school. I was avoiding him all day but he tracked me down and cornered me. Big Chris reached into his backpack and got out a denim jacket. I thought he was getting something to hit me with. Instead, there was a picture of Shakin’ Stevens on the cover of a record with his hair slicked back. Chris was like, “I want you to paint this on the back of my jacket.” I remember thinking, what a relief, you know. I spent the next day painting this picture of Shakin’ Stevens on the back of his penny jacket. I knew that it had to be good, that my life depended upon it. I took it to school, gave it to him, and just heard him say “Smart!” That was it. No mention of payment or anything, I just got to carry on living.
After that, loads of people wanted me to do their jackets. That’s when me and Big Chris went into business. He started getting commissions, so he’d bring jackets with a picture for me to copy. I would paint them and get five pounds for a denim jacket. More for a leather jacket. It was a lot back then in the 70s, man. Then there was a mod revival so we started doing parkas. Chris got me an airbrush from somewhere and we started doing the side panels of scooters. Other people would come to me, as my reputation got around town, with personal maxims that they felt strongly about. Somebody would want me to write “Nobody understands” and someone else would want “It’s a way of life,” there was something kind of scriptural about it. So I started working with text and imagery from quite an early age. Punk came along so I left school, and my business partnership with Chris dissolved.
D You’ve talked about various periods of the past coming into some of this work here. Illuminated manuscripts, dropped capitals, and that sort of thing. I was pretty curious because it’s quite a jump, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a very different aesthetic and time period, but it’s so implicated in the order and history of graphic design. In a way, it’s the naissance of so many ideas in typography. Obviously, those are some of the most beautiful books that we’ve ever seen. I would love to hear your take on how that became a part of this series.
H I went to art school in York to become a graphic artist. I loved the way art and graphics were leapfrogging off each other, if that’s the right visual image. Pop artists were influenced by advertising, and advertising would then be influenced by Pop artists. It wasn’t necessarily just about selling stuff…I think advertising is in a shocking state now. But anyway, at art school, I took a course called the History of Lettering. I learnt the entire history all the way back to Boustrophedonic script. People would write from right to left and then drop down and write from left to right. What I loved in the book, what stood out for me, and what I chose to do for my practical exam, was the first letter of a page in an illuminated manuscript.” I made a big, blown up version of it. That was basically a Pop Art thing – you take something small in graphics and blow it up. I think it really does come from that period in time, when I thought I could give these mediaeval manuscripts Pop Art makeovers.
D How do you technique wise achieve these kinds of works? Is it screen print and paint applied by hand, or a whole mix of different things?
H I just paint them freehand. They started out as studies for the tighter works. The graphic, hard-edged works begin as pencil on canvas. I draw them and then work the paint in. Some of the letter paintings have a sense of being translucent when one letter is laid upon another. It was always a difficult thing to make them painterly and create that visual illusion that you’re seeing through a painting. I wasn’t talking about technique…it’s probably boring.
D To an extent, but I think when it’s trompe l’oeil, when something is not what it seems, then that’s when it’s interesting. That’s what I’m understanding from even these studies, which I’m glad made it to become works, because I think they show a lot of that thought process.
H I like when a painting will start and take what happens next rather than having a plan for the painting, cause then you’re just executing it, you’re just a technician. For example, let’s start with a “C.” You would dictate that the C is blue and layer it over with an “A” in yellow, and it becomes green. It might work, it might look off. These studies are a way in which we’ve departed from the strictures of this technique. I always read into formal colour relationships. So even if blue and yellow make green, I’m going to have to paint it red, otherwise it’s just not going to work. That’s why these paintings have this colour work in them, different colours and different paintings in each of the sketches.
D What do you mean by your interest in formal colour work in that sense?
H Well, does that blue go well next to that yellow? And if it doesn’t, is that also interesting? Is that jarring enough to work? I like to rescue work. I have a painting called “Colour Scheme For A Fucking Fiasco,” from when I was trying to make paintings with colour schemes as jarring as possible, but maybe somehow work. I was actually very inspired by Yves Saint Laurent because my wife has a lot of foulards with impossible colours.
D It’s a perfect segue way into the title of the show, “The French Letter Paintings.”
H These entendres…I was writing the press release and there were these letter paintings in the show, and because the show was going to be in France, I’d like to use French letter paintings. And I thought, that is what they are. They are French letter paintings. And I know “French letters” are preservatifs. Condoms, as we call them. It’s an unlovely word if ever there was one.
White Cube Paris, 10 Avenue Matignon, 75008
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The 25th issue of has been guest edited by Chitose Abe of the Japanese cult label sacai. As the first Japanese woman to curate an issue, Abe has called upon her inner circle of friends, family and artistic collaborators to contribute cultural and creative content across the 200 page magazine.