Born in Yorkshire in 1964, Harland Miller is both a writer and an artist. First achieving critical acclaim with his debut novel Slow Down Arthur Stick To Thirty in 2000, Miller has since become a renowned contemporary artist, topping wish-lists of critics and collectors for over two decades. Known for his remarkable reimaginations of Penguin book covers, the artist draws a wide audience with his vibrant and nostalgic canvases.
This month Maddox Gallery Los Angeles is proud to present, When Books Were Famous, an exhibition promising an unprecedented look at Miller’s oeuvre. Featuring prints and paintings, the show contains some of the artist’s most iconic works, including Love Saves The Day and Who Cares Wins.
In celebration of this unparalleled look at the British artist in the United States, we spoke to Maddox Creative Director and self-professed Harland Miller fan Jay Rutland about the ongoing success of the text-based artist.
MADDOX GALLERY CREATIVE DIRECTOR, JAY RUTLAND
It was in 1992 that Harland Miller first decided to reappropriate Penguin book covers. Living in Paris at the time, the artist found a box full of the novels outside a second-hand book shop near Notre Dame. Instantly struck by the visual nostalgia of their covers, Miller bought the lot. Although the artist had already been experimenting with text and wordplay in his art prior to this discovery, the charming familiarity of the paperback designs helped him accomplish what he had been trying to achieve.
Jay Rutland notes that “there is something distinctively British and iconic about Penguin classic books. Those memorable dust-jacket covers strike a chord with the reading public’s collective memory. No matter your age, it stirs a certain level of emotion, much like the joy of a good book itself”.
Miller once recalled in an interview that his love of books stemmed from his childhood. Despite growing up with limited finances, his father was an avid collector of books, regularly going to auction houses to see if he could find rare editions at affordable prices. Surrounded by literature from a young age, Miller’s work utilises the highly personal relationships we forge with books, adding a certain charm to his sardonic artworks, that cannot help but make the viewer smile.
From the nostalgia of pop art to the colourway of Abstract Expressionism, Miller’s artwork marries a plethora of artistic styles meaning that its appeal is wide-reaching. Reportedly citing Mark Rothko as one of his biggest inspirations, many of Miller’s artworks, including In Shadows I Boogie and Thought After Filthy Thought, feature vast swathes of vivid colour, evoking an emotive response from their abstract arrangement.
In other artworks, however, Jay Rutland notes that “Miller’s love of pop art can be easily identified”, with the artist elevating the banal, a Penguin classic novel for example, to the subject of a work of fine art. The artist himself even drew parallels between his reimagined books and Andy Warhol, apparently stating that the subject of his works is “a bit like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans being about what he ate for dinner every day”. After acquiring the box of books in 1992, Miller went through a period of reading Penguin classics every day, which undoubtedly fuelled his interest in the iconic covers.
Once described by art critic and writer Martin Herbert as ‘visual earworms’, Harland Miller’s artworks are as memorable as they are humorous. Leveraging a viewer’s ability to remember catchy phrases over a visual composition, Miller capitalises upon the literal legibility of his work, meaning that his artwork lives on beyond the visual, via mnemonics.
Rutland notes that “by making his self-composed titles the focal point of his artwork, Miller’s canvases continue to work even when the viewer is no longer standing in front of it. Like a catchy song you just can’t seem to forget, Miller’s work can run through your head all day in a way that other works of art do not”.
The universal and unwavering demand for Harland Miller’s artwork is reflected in the strong auction results he has ascertained over the past ten years. Despite 2019 establishing the artist’s auction record, 2020 marked the highest total turnover for Miller at auction, with the artist accumulating £1,202,665 from 50 offered lots. This stable and continuing increase in price, nearly three decades after the artist first entered the scene, shows Miller’s witty and sardonic works are here to stay.
Rutland comments that “it is of no surprise that Miller’s work continues to grow in popularity. From international exhibitions to some of the private collections of the world’s most famous collectors, including George Michael and Elton John, Miller’s work is appreciated worldwide”.
HARLAND MILLER, THE HOUSE OF FAIRY TALES (INTERNATIONAL LONELY GUY), 2008