Michael Callaghan was born in 1952 in Wollongong. His mother’s Presbyterian family were local coal miner - politicised working class stock. His father was a cockney entrepreneurial English immigrant with a ‘secret’ Jewish heritage converted to Salvation Army. His first 12 years were spent in Wollongong - part of the rising middle class as his father’s business ventures took off.
His parent had a rocky relationship - when he was 12 his father as an appeasement gesture paid for Michael his mother, sister Mary and aunt to embark on a Grand Tour to Europe – principally to Italy and England. This was a pivotal experience for Callaghan who came back with a firmly cemented wide-ranging interest in history, art history and politics. The didactic always reading Michael was borne. The pop sensibilities of 60’s London had also found their way into his persona and style.
Back to steel town after a year away was a shock – his small town eye’s had been prised wide open.
One of his first teenage works was the Box Magazine in 1968 in collaboration with his best mate since kindergarten, Phillip Batty. Enduring friendships were a continuum in Michael’s life.
In 1969, Michael and Batty enrolled in the National Art School in Sydney where they graduated with a Diploma in Sculpture in 1974. Fellow student’s Marie McMahon, Ruth Waller and Jan MacKay, became lifelong friends and later co-workers.
As students, the British abstract sculptor Anthony Caro whose work is characterised by assemblages of metal using ‘found’ industrial objects influenced Callaghan and Batty. Their focus altered when they met Noel Sheridan – actor, artist, and director of the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. They along with Maria McMahon, Bruce Gould and fellow art students helped Sheridan create and perform Penumbra II – A Shadow Play at Central Street Gallery in Sydney. The attraction to more ephemeral performance works, video and post-object inspired works began.
Donald Brook from the Fine Arts Department at the University of Sydney had coined the term Post Object Art to describe the shift away from the art object as a precious commodity and to emphasize the society from which it came. This anti-art or non-precious attitude to art also incorporated some elements of Pop Art . After graduating, Callaghan’s similar interest led to him tutoring in Post Object Art at the Tin Sheds Workshops at the University of Sydney in 1975 with Alex Danko, Mike Parr and Ian Robertson.
Callaghan became very active in the Earthworks Poster Collective in 1976, sharing the concerns about issues through the more immediate medium of poster making as propaganda. He joined with Mark Abuz Chips Mackinolty (described by Michael as his co-conspirator), Maria McMahon, Jan MacKay, Toni Robertson and Ray Young, tutoring screen-printing and developing his signature irreverence and iconic political posters.
Michael was influenced by the audacity of Andy Warhol and his design style as well as the new influence of Punk culture which married with his anarchistic philosophy.
The Tin Sheds (in the words of Therese Kenyon) acted as a catalyst for many activities, both directly and indirectly generated from the Sheds and functioned as a loose forum for discussion and experimentation in the contemporary art and politically active communities operating in Sydney at the time. The art maker, worked on a democratic basis; their decisions were made collectively. The philosophy of the group was based on leftist politics and feminist principles and led to the development of community arts programs and provided strategies that made image and message-making accessible local population.
Working and living in the Sheds led to collaboration with a wide range of artworkers, art writers and political activists – Tim Burns, Joan Grounds, John Forbes, Colin Little, Mitch Johnson, Ian Burn, Vivienne Binns, Julie Ewington, Jan Fieldsend and Ian Millis were all part of the contact circle.
Anna Zagala suggests that although the posters produced by Earthworks were heavily influenced by the French poster collective, their works present a ‘uniquely local vernacular, a distinctly Sydney brand of rudeness.’. This is evident in the works that deal with Australian politics such as Give Fraser the Razor, 1977. Earthworksclosed its doors in 1979 and two years later Redback took its place as the center for the Australian political posters.
In 1979-1980 as artist-in-residence at Griffith University , Michael finally had a fully paid gig. Making a living from his art practice seeded the idea of the alternative advertising agency, turning collective political activism into an enterprise that enabled artists to earn a living whilst using their skills and political edge. Redback Graphix was born. His first poster in the Redback Graphix persona was possibly the most recognisable poster image in contemporary Australia – If the Unemployed are Dole Bludgers, What the Fuck are the Idle Rich? It was made for Mary’s Steel City Pictures film fund raising.
Callaghan moved back to Wollongong in 1982 and set up the first Redback Graphix commercial workshop with Gregor Cullen. In 1982-3, both Callaghan and Cullen were appointed artists-in-residence to the South Coast Labor Council. They designed and built a workshop in an unused kiosk on the beach at Wollongong. Gradually expanding the artists to include Alison Alder, Leonie Lane and Ray Young with trainees Sharon Pucell and Nick Southall, and occasional visiting artists including Jan McKay, Marie McMahon, Chips Mackinolty and Ruth Waller. Funding assistance from the Australia Council and NSW Ministry of Arts were pivotal in allowing Redback to thrive.
Redback Graphix was one of the artworkers groups at the forefront of the Artworkers Union , and Art and Working Life, a movement established through various member and cultural organisations operating with trade unions. Redback created a poster advertising the Art and Working Life Conference of trade unionist and artists from all over Australia that was held in 1981 at Melbourne Trades Hall Council , overseen by Deborah Mills and others from the Australia Council.
Callaghan and Cullen travelled to the USA in 1984 to California representing Australia in an exhibition titled Nine Contemporary Australian Artists held at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art , as part of the Olympics Art Festival . Here they made contact with the Chicano community of East Los Angeles and made two poster works on site in collaboration with the United Farmworkers Union of California, and the Chicano Cultural Coalition, whilst based at Self Help Graphics,. The experience underlined the international context of Redback’s work and emphasised the sense of being part of a broader political and issues based art practise.
In 1985 Redback Graphix , adopting a more business focused model, moved to Sydney with Callaghan, Alder and Lane as core partners. Over the next six years, they cemented their reputations as designers and poster makers and influenced many other workshops and alternative political enterprises. Although it is sometimes difficult to separate Michael’s work from the collaborative enterprise, his work had a distinctive attitude. By withholding an overly didactic analysis and redirecting through a surreal and anarchic sense of humour, Callaghan contributed to the power and timeliness of the many political posters conceived and produced by Redback Graphix.
Using the same signature bold florescent graphics and punchy humour, the Redback workshop created campaigns throughout the 80s and 90s that tackled issues ranging from unemployment, trade union issues, AIDS awareness to indigenous health and for clients that included Amnesty International and CAAMA and the ACTU .
In the early 1990’s Michael was diagnosed with liver failure. After years of pushing the envelope and partying hard and possibly partially caused by the carcinogenic nature of the screen printing inks he had worked with a new reality had to be faced. In 1993, he received a liver transplant.
He continued producing campaign works with trade unions and government instrumentalities during this period but moved to offset printing. Ever the collaborator he worked closely with Greg McLachlan whose typesetting and computer skills married well with Michael’s graphic style.
This followed a rocky period of causal illnesses to which he refused to succumb and various bouts in hospital. Michael hated discussing his health and preferred just to get on with life, keep reading, keep talking and keep socialising.
During a hospital stint, he began work on a series of gouache works – the Memento Mori and Flos Mortis series designed to be reproduced as limited addition art prints. They were in part a self-portrait of a person facing up to, examining and laughing at/with death in the Mexican tradition and part more play with colour composition and a distraction from the tediousness of hospital life.
These works were completed in the Southern Highlands where we now lived and were initially exhibited at the Manly Gallery - A Survey 1967-2006 Michael Callaghan and later touring to regional galleries.
Michael’s final body of work – the Torture Memo 2010 were made whilst he was the recipient of the ANU 2009 H C Coombs Creative Arts Fellowship administered by the Research School of Humanities and the Arts in association with the ANU School of Art . It was fitting that this had been partially orchestrated by his one-time significant other and close friend Ruth Waller. Circles within circles – the story of Michael’s life.
By this time, his final dance with death had begun. Whilst Michael could not ignore cancer and endured with great stoicism chemo and radiotherapy, his sense of urgency to produce something meaningful peaked. The works focused on the military strategies and methods used in the Iraq war – from suicide bombing to waterboarding, and the grave issues – from civilian casualties to the notion of Western moral intervention that are this war’s result. Deeply aware of the power of the repetitious slogan and doublespeak, Callaghan uses the language of the Iraq War against itself, revealing its futility and grim irony. The student and staff he worked with during this time invigorated Michael. It energized him forward.
Michael was working on his last work when he died at home as was our wish. With help from his friends and colleagues over the years, this became the Tribute Show.
His one realised work was the AK47 sculpture . Michael’s practice was collaborative in nature, we had the prototypes and Michael and I had worked together on the concept. It could not have been realised without Greg McLachlan’s fine computer rendering in dissecting the connecting layers, OR Greg Page’s considerable carpentry skills in assembling the gun. As Greg McLachlan commented, Michael always surrounded himself with artisans – the AK47 is as much a product of our skills as of Michael’s vision.
So what of Michael the man, he was a constant reader, an autodidact, a sometimes-wearying argumentative raconteur. A music lover - eclectic as always from classical to world music and of course the music of his times. Music always accompanied producing art.
In his Weazelpants persona he corresponded via email wide and far with friends all manner of nonsense in the style of Jeeves (one of his hero’s…we had the whole collection). He and Kaz Cooke, one of his many correspondents presented Simon Weazlepants to the public in A Little Book of Crap .
Like his father, a careful dresser with the ever present, in post punk years, when he ceremoniously removed the earrings (too old for that now), of the trilby and in winter a fine wool Italian coat (black bear and brown bear).He was a keeper of friends, including ex’s, kind and generous with his time. He loved women and was an incorrigible flirt and serial seducer, for the fun of the chase. Collaboration was in his DNA. He was a magpie who never threw anything away and sourced material from everywhere.
He had a foul temper and could turn on a knife, another family trait, but was also endearing and charming. Disarming in dialogue – open and frank when confronted.
In short, he was complex as we all are. He never lost his rage or the need to create.
Callaghan’s posters, prints and paintings have documented and altered the Australian cultural and political landscape for over 40 years with characteristic biting humour and strong imagery.
His work is held in numerous public and private collections in Australia and overseas including the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of NSW, Queensland Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Wollongong Collection, Mitchell Library Collection, and the Powerhouse Museum .
I have borrowed text for the historical elements of this bio – apologies to all.
Having been overseas when he departed, I feel a bit remiss to have taken six months to give Michael Callaghan his due, but it was exhilarating to see this final artwork realised to his specifications. In one memorable image, it summed up the qualities of a life’s work, presenting a political statement with dry, coruscating wit. It suggested one might be able to buy a popular machine gun in a range of fashion colours, like a handbag or an iPad cover. Callaghan’s politics were firmly to the left but he was no mere ideologue. A typical piece, be it a poster or a three-dimensional construction, was intended to stop viewers in their tracks. One was drawn to reflect on the deeper meaning of a work, even while laughing at its audacity. AK47 is a museum piece, and it’s to be hoped that a public gallery will show an interest. When so much trendy junk is acquired for public collections, it would be criminal to see the last major creation by an important artist go unnoticed.