There’s No Business Like No Business belongs to one of Harland Miller’s most recognised series of works inspired by the Penguin book covers. It is displayed at Penguin’s offices in New York and described by Penguin as a “celebration of this unique marriage of art and literature”.
In keeping with his usual sarcastic wittiness, the text emblazoned across the forefront of this work of art is a play on the old maxim “there’s no business like show business”. The Penguin Plays series, in particular, is part of the Penguin publishing enterprise that features accessible and portable editions of classic plays, which illuminates the conceptual association Miller makes with the world of show business.
The title There’s No Business Like No Business is provocative and poignant, subversively sociopolitical, referencing a catchphrase from popular culture, triggering a ring of distant familiarity. When asked where the titles from his books originate from, Miller says “nowhere in particular. Everywhere, anywhere.” He prefers for the audience to connect to the phrases personally, and draw their own individual interpretations rather than imposing his own meaning upon them. The faded cover, torn edges and stained, smudged pages nostalgically recall a lifetime history of love and use that visually references our intimate, long-standing relationship with text and language. The style evokes a visceral, physical connection between person and paper page that is inherited through generations.
The text takes precedent in his Penguin works, as Miller explains, “people read before they can stop themselves.” He continues, “you can really say anything you wanted in the middle panel, because people are already used to the form of the Penguin book, so in that way the text carried more weight than the painting.” As for his love of text, Miller himself actually first achieved widespread critical recognition as a writer, with his debut novel, Slow down Arthur, Stick to Thirty published in 2000. Then in 2001, merging his interests in image and text, Miller began creating a series of works based upon the Penguin book covers, which he picked up from thrift shops during his time spent living in Paris. Unable to understand the titles in French, he began to fabricate his own titles. Miller was able to incorporate his love of classic literature with painting. There’s No Business Like No Business is an archetypal example from this body of work, which combines figurative painting with elements of popular culture and literary imagery. With painterly brushstrokes and dripping colour partly obscuring the text, the effect is one of an ageing paperback infused with artistic vigour and an unmissable sense of the presence of the artist’s hand.
Miller’s Penguin works in particular have become hugely desirable amongst collectors. In much the same way that the paperbacks themselves were sought after in the 1930s and 1940s, Miller’s works have adopted a similarly desirable collectability today, occupying a significant place in the contemporary art marketplace and the artist himself staking his name within the trajectory of hugely successful and important British artists.