Thank You,

Iron-On Resistance carries on the tradition of art-for-everybody.

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It was a lazy Sunday (in the now immortal words of SNL's Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) when I visited the Tampa Museum of Art with Josh Bertrand and Dave Rau, a pair of local digital artists who design T-shirts, buttons and neckties in addition to websites, graphics and fine art prints. They are the masterminds behind Iron-On Resistance (irononresistance.com), a virtual storefront where they sell the screen-printed apparel and accessories they create under the name Red Labor as well as work by two other Tampa-area artists.

I first met the two at Booty, the contemporary offshoot of the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in March. Bertrand, stationed at a table near the storage-pod gallery spaces on Franklin Street, directed passersby to a building two blocks away where Iron-On had created a temporary physical store during the festival. I found Rau at the store, where the duo sold more products during the festival weekend than they had in the previous month.

A month later, we converged at the museum to see Art & Commerce, an exhibit of Keith Haring's Pop Shop collectibles: T-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons — even skateboards — emblazoned with the artist's legendary stick figures in day-glo colors or black and white. The parallel between their own practice and Haring's felt a bit like vindication to the pair, who often find themselves treading the no-man's land between art and design. They had known of Haring's paintings and his ads for Absolut Vodka, but not of the Pop Shop.

If it were still open, this year the Pop Shop would celebrate the 20th anniversary of its 1986 debut in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. Haring opened it after his ephemeral chalk subway drawings brought him a meteoric rise to fame and wealth — changes that failed to dampen his commitment to making art accessible to the general public. His untimely death in 1990 at the age of 31 robbed the world of a vibrant and outspoken voice for social change (e.g., improving AIDS awareness, ending crack cocaine's reign of terror). The Pop Shop remained a living legacy until 2005, serving as a witness and eventual casualty to Soho's evolution from gritty, industrial neighborhood to shopping capital of the world. The store finally closed its doors last September, citing rising rent and slow sales.

The exhibit, which seems small in relation to the publicity blitz undertaken by the museum, showcases an array of Pop Shop products safely stowed behind panels of glass. Some are fresh with contemporary feeling (particularly the skateboards); others look endearingly dated (a small box radio with a molded plastic face — today's equivalent would be a Haring iPod). Bertrand and Rau were quick to point out the irony of this final resting place for objects originally created to democratize art ownership.

The two can identify with the art-for-everyman philosophy that led Haring to embark on the project. They see their wearable, usable creations as an outreach to younger people who view museums and galleries as stuffy and beyond their price range.

"It's tough being able to appreciate $5,000 and $10,000 paintings and not being able to afford them," said Rau, 26. At an event later this month where Red Labor and other artists will show art and objects that fuse art and fashion, "$50 might be the limit for most people."

The "Dirty But Sophisticated" event at Ybor's Czar club will feature live music and more than a dozen artists exhibiting art that also falls under the heading of commerce. Iron-On will also be selling "New Art Products" as part of the Tampa Museum of Art's Art After Dark event on April 21, which also features live music, screen-printing and painting.

"A lot of young people who are very consumer-oriented may have no interest at all in art, but they are willing to find out about it" through screen-printed T-shirts and messenger bags, said Bertrand, 24. "It's the drive for something cool to wear that gets them interested in art. We try to do several tiers of merchandise and art prices — if you like this [T-shirt], you might grow into that [artwork]."

"A lot of people think that we're not artists because we work digitally," Rau said. "We're not at the point yet where digital artists and painters are on the same plane. This is actually a way for us to take advantage of that perception; since we're not traditional artists it's easier for us to get away with making work that's not traditional art."

Haring's Pop Shop was dismissed by critics at the time, but Iron-On Resistance seems to be getting a pretty warm reception in Tampa judging from the group's inclusion in Booty. (Incidentally, many of the sales on their website come from out of state and countries as far and wide as Norway and Japan.) In their own work as Red Labor, Bertrand and Rau create layered collages of digital images for transfer onto their screen-printed objects. They may start by scanning textured surfaces like canvas to create visual dimension, then add graphic elements of Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation for a contrasting aesthetic, in rebellion against minimalist, anesthetized corporate design. While Haring's cartoony, hand-drawn shapes sometimes convey a childlike sense of enthusiasm and innocence, Red Labor's imagery evokes the sensory overload of media culture and American militarism. Tanks, rockets and faceless yes-men with television heads populate the pair's designs; messages like "I love my military industrial complex" drive the ironic commentary home.

Rau and Bertrand credit the Internet with making their business possible, enabling rapid, relatively costless change to their virtual storefront, scalable inventory and access to customers all around the world, combined with publicity from blogs. However, they haven't ruled out the idea of opening a physical store somewhere in Tampa. An increased presence in the community could help the group's practice — incorporating social critique into youth-oriented apparel with street credibility — become viral and catch on among local groups working for change, something Rau hopes for.

Haring would be proud.

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