Tyler Brumfield's final exhibition to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree is very different from the woodworking he was focused on when he entered the University of Montana.
He said the title of his show, "Lit," besides its contemporary usage, has older roots. Musicians in the '40s and '50s used it to refer to getting into a groove before a concert; and there's the more everyday reference, like a general feeling of surprise, like someone's eyes lighting up.
His LED light sculptures illuminate a darkened half of the Gallery of Visual Arts in the Social Science Building. In one corner, an 8-foot tall magenta rectangle casts light on the ceiling, walls and floor. In another, pointed one horizontally toward the corner to give a burst of green. Freeform pentagons in green, magenta and red greet visitors from the walls and floors as they pass through the room.
They follow a sequence, like the palette is a "pathway through the exhibition," he said.
He designed the installation to provide an "enlightening discovery," he said, and not make anyone too somber or reflective.
"There are more serious ideas behind it," he said, but those aren't necessary to enjoy the work, which is something that I value about specific artists."
He likes work that can "bridge the gap between academia and people who haven't studied art, because this is a pretty specialized thing that we we do," he said.
The GVA is busy all spring semester with the MFA thesis shows, which the candidates are required to stage in their final semester. The public typically only sees the exhibition, but there's a research paper they must present and defend in front of the faculty.
The faculty expects an exhibition that "reflects/represents the student's research/practice over the past three years. Faculty typically expects the MFA candidate to create an original body of work that is informed by their scholarly research in history and criticism, while finding their own voice in the larger visual art framework," according to adjunct professor Jack Metcalf, who's also director of the GVA.
The Oregon native studied the same trade as his woodworker grandfather for his undergraduate degree, and thought he would continue refining his work in that material through graduate school. Instead, grad school was spent on strategies and considering "the best material and best form for your ideas," he said.
Even as a woodworker, he's attracted to a minimalist aesthetic. He said he valued craftsmanship and a finished quality over rough surfaces, whether making art or furniture for himself or others.
"How much power can you pack into a piece with the fewest amount of elements. How much can you do with a little?"
The idea to work with LED light displays came when he was walking past a Domino's Pizza sign on the street. He was struck by the size of the thing, a large, free-standing sculptural object in its own way, with a simple, eye-catching designs.
They're "almost tacky," too, when you see them by the side of the road. He thought they'd be more interesting if he stripped out the text and brought them into a gallery.
"These are just here for you to look at, they're not advertising anything, they aren't selling anything, there's no product," he said.
Regarding the research component of his thesis, it has references to pop art's co-option of advertising techniques; and minimalist artists such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell who use light installations as their main material. Flavin's most famous pieces are as simple as a fluorescent light bulb.
"Everybody's driven down the interstate and had some encounter with illuminated signage, by taking the text away and taking away clear directionality, I think the viewer's allowed to have a different experience with them," he said.
To build the pieces, Brumfield researched LED sign construction and fabricated them himself with specialized tools for cutting the material. All the sides, from the colored faces to the solid-black sides, are Plexiglas.
He's most pleased with a wall piece, in which a free-form white shape is partially covered by a black triangle. He likes the way it obstructs the shape underneath it, an effect that he may pursue in hybrid of woodworking and LED sculptures.
If he had the funding, he said he'd like to put one on the side of the interstate, just like the signs that spurred the idea, sitting atop a 70-foot pole.