Larine Chung has already gone to art school, but now she is learning to draw and paint. Quietly, under a focused light, Chung is practicing techniques that were developed in the Renaissance and fine-tuned in 19th-century France. She is surrounded by white plaster casts of centuries-old sculptures. She is 28 years old, and hungrily learning ancient techniques and philosophies, filling her diaries with arcane notes about things like graphite dust and raw-umber paint, and with stories and sketches that document her unending struggle to get the likeness right.
This is nothing like art school, which was talkative and trendy. At Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chung's instructors taught her the ideas behind the modernist revolution and global contemporary art. But when they sent her to her studio to work, she says she didn't know what to do.
"It was like, here's a brush, go paint, you are an artist," Chung says. "After I graduated, I felt like I couldn't paint, I couldn't do things." She dismisses her university art education—"I feel like it's a lot of BS."
Standing next to her easel, Chung is on the top floor of Gage Academy of Art, an independent specialty school in Seattle that has 1,500 students. "Classical Training for Contemporary Artists" is the motto of Gage, which has been operating since 1992. Back then, it was called the Academy of Realist Art. In 2004, it moved into its current home, the historic St. Nicholas brick schoolhouse in a pastoral part of Capitol Hill, nestled next to St. Mark's Cathedral.
That year, 2004, is when the atelier, or studio, of classical instructor Juliette Aristides went full-time. Chung is one of only 16 students allowed to study in the Aristides Atelier within Gage Academy. What is now a hushed sanctuary with a communal wood table and gentle natural light filtered through a blanket of trees was once the painting studio for Cornish College of the Arts. The room had red paint splattered on the floor like blood and black graffiti on the walls where holes weren't kicked through. Now, students disappear into the atelier like monks. They work on their art from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and often after hours.
There is only one other full-time classical atelier on the West Coast (in L.A.). Only about 30 exist across the country. The atelier system—of extended apprenticeships in the studios of master artists—is an old European tradition, spanning back to the Renaissance and up through the Flemish painting guilds to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But they faced extinction in America when art education became a province of universities in the first half of the 20th century. And it's not just here. Right now, a controversial move to standardize higher education across Europe means the atelier system is giving way there, too.
The Aristides Atelier at Gage is one of the few torch-bearers, and because it is so rare, its 16 students come from all over the world and make sacrifices to attend full-time. Several already have degrees in art. Chung moved from Hong Kong, Tenaya Sims from Southern California. Eduardo Fernandez commutes from Portland every week. Joshua Langstaff's wife got into a graduate program in New York, but gave it up so Langstaff could attend the Aristides Atelier; they moved from Michigan. Kurt Thomas, who also relocated from Michigan, pays his way by following up his 35-hour week at the atelier with weekends and nights doing carpentry. Tuition at the Aristides Atelier is $6,000 a year.
After all this work, these students will not receive diplomas, because Gage Academy is not an accredited school. They are here strictly because they believe that this is the best art education they can get. They are taught to master exacting techniques through observation and replication. First, they draw in pencil, then in charcoal. When they're proficient, they're allowed to paint, first in gray scale, then in full color. It can take more than a year to graduate to paint.
Every morning, they spend three hours drawing or painting from a posed model. In the afternoons, they work on individual projects: copying drapery studies by Leonardo da Vinci, mixing color charts to match the hues in an Old Master painting, drawing copies of plaster casts. The curriculum lasts four years, and Aristides, a petite and brusque woman with laser focus, monitors each student individually. Aristides is known in the classical atelier world as one of the better instructors in the United States. Her students speak of her in awed tones.
"I am a little afraid of her, and I can say that because I respect her," Chung says. "This is just incredibly hard work. It's not uncommon for people to break down and cry in the atelier."
Last spring, Gage Academy invited someone from the mainstream art world to judge its schoolwide competition—Greg Kucera, a dealer whose gallery in Seattle is the most likely to feature a household-name artist. His juror's statement was posted on the wall in Gage's gallery, alongside the drawings, paintings, and sculptures in the exhibition.
"There seems to be a good deal of showing off what one can do but very little that caught any kind of emotional depth," Kucera wrote. "It's like hearing a violinist who can hit all the notes in a complex sonata by William Walton but not give you any satisfaction of the passion."
This inspired a counteroffensive from students. They handwrote a manifesto and pinned it to the wall across from Kucera's commentary, on an enormous piece of paper.
"The Passion is in trusting yourself even when the rest of the art world tells you what you are doing isn't valid. The Passion is in beginning an endeavor like this in the first place. The Passion is in spending 30 hours on a painting struggling to keep it fresh and alive."
As polite and quiet as the Aristides Atelier is, it is a radical protest against the art mainstream. The last 120 years of art do not penetrate the deep-burgundy velvet drapes at the door. Modernism does not exist. Not even photography is acknowledged as an art form, or encouraged as source material for painting. Direct observation from life is the foundation.
This contrarian vein goes back to an archconservative painter who declared war on modern painting and called for a rebirth of "classical realism" in the United States in the 1950s. His name was R. H. Ives Gammell, and he wrote a book called Twilight of Painting.
"Misplaced intellectualism imposed on ignorant execution" was his universal swipe at anything that didn't resemble French academic painting.
The Aristides Atelier in Seattle has a direct lineage back to Gammell. Aristides learned in the studio of Richard Lack, Gammell's most noted disciple (and the one to coin the term "classical realism"). But all of Gage Academy, not just the Aristides Atelier, was founded as a rebuke to mainstream modern art.
"Figurative artists have been belittled, omitted, marginalized, and misunderstood," Gage artistic director Gary Faigin decried, defending the school in the Seattle Times in 1993. "Art history has been skewed to reflect contemporary prejudice."
On the other side of this culture war, the art world that Gage has defined itself against is notorious for not having any rules. The closest thing to a rule is not to do something someone else has done better. Instead of rules, there is history. Artists are trained at universities, like the University of Washington, or art schools, like Cornish College of the Arts, which squeeze in theory, art history, manual skill, and career how-to, in a balance that varies according to school and individual artist. There is no fixed standard, no yardstick for measuring accomplishment as objective as likeness.
For this reason, Gage Academy has become, in certain circles in Seattle, a dirty little secret of art education—a place artists scurry off to for skills they can't get at more-conventional programs. Michael Magrath, an instructor in sculpture at UW, also teaches at Gage, and when his UW students complain they're not learning skills, "I quietly say, 'Now come on over here, I'll teach you how to sculpt.'" Likewise, Gage has about two "Cornish refugees" every year, says Gage executive director Pamela Belyea, students who can barely afford to pay for classes because they're already paying for another art school, but who come to Gage anyway.
The reason art schools don't teach painting and drawing skills as in-depth as Aristides Atelier does is the consensus that not all artists need this level of specialized skill to build successful careers or to make meaningful work.
Skill-based training declined at art schools and universities in the 1970s, when idea-driven, or conceptual, art was at its height, and learning to make a realistic-looking painting seemed cloistered compared to sculpting entire land forms or interrogating racism and sexism. Conceptual art is so verbal, so at home in an academic setting, that it became self-replicating. As New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldal wrote in a review earlier this month, "The signal product of recent art education is, rather than art, the artist's statement."
But the pluralism of contemporary art makes it difficult to educate artists. At UW, 60 percent of art majors are studying more than one medium. Artists today are less likely than ever to be tied to a single mode—painting or sculpture, say—and proficiency in all the mediums would be impossible within the confines of bachelor's or master's degrees. (American schools do not yet offer doctoral degrees in studio art, though they do in art history. The Cleveland Institute of Art is developing the country's first PhD in art, but it will focus mainly on the post-studio practices that have emerged in the last 30 years.)
The real conundrum is deeper than all that.
"It's hard to know what qualifies somebody to be an artist anymore," Schjeldahl told me in a recent phone conversation. "The ability to do something is very important in bridge building and in airplane building. In art, what the hell is the job? If there is one, then what's required to do it well?"
But is it a conundrum worth solving away with ruling dogma? Schjeldahl has words for those who want art to be simple:
"Art," he told me, "is a zone of permanent floating confusion amid the petty certainties of life, and people who can't handle it should really go into the family business and leave the rest of us alone."
The artistic director of Gage, Gary Faigin, is sitting in his Ballard studio on a recent sunny morning, next to an almost-finished painting. It is a still-life in the tradition of 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, depicting a vase and a skull, but in bluish tones, as if they were photographic negatives. The still-life invokes that accused predator of painting, photography.
"It's a self-portrait," Faigin says. "I'm trying to figure out my relationship to the art world."
"We're not going to talk about you all morning," teases his wife, Belyea, the business head of the school and its cofounder with Faigin.
In addition to Aristides, these are the two people most associated with Gage Academy in the public eye. Belyea is a pragmatist, Faigin an eccentric. His eyes dart around or squint closed and he gives feisty, fast-moving speeches. By contrast, Belyea is focused and highly organized. Her energy fuels the school's day-to-day administration.
Belyea corrals Faigin to the couch, where he thinks out loud about the predicament he finds himself in.
"I was fine with the idea that most of contemporary art was bullshit," Faigin says. "When I didn't focus on it, all I'd tend to hear about was the most notorious stuff. Then, I went to the Venice Biennale in 2003. I was amazed at what a good time I had. It changed me. I saw some amazing conceptual pieces. I had mistaken the medium for the message, in a way."
Belyea is a Bauhaus-trained architect from the distinguished Cooper Union in New York. She's always had a more contemporary perspective than her husband.
"I've always wondered why I'm running this school, because I am not that enamored of representational art," Belyea says. "I think we may have crossed over as the years went on," she continues, looking over at her husband. He lets her assertion stand.
This is big news for Gage Academy.
The Aristides Atelier—the most conservative of Gage's programs—is rising in reputation. Since the atelier went full-time in 2004, it has gained a steady waiting list. Last spring was the first graduating class, of three, and their spots were quickly filled.
Just as Gage is training students who, like Chung, could turn out to be the culmination of the school's every hope, the kinds of artists this school always dreamed of producing, the school may be turning in another direction. Gage is moderating its views and modernizing its offerings as it matures from a hobbyist center to a real art school. And Faigin has been tempted by the multitalented seductress of contemporary art.
He is unwavering in his dismissal of R. H. Ives Gammell, Artistides's forebear and a man whose ideas the school would seem to agree with.
"Gammell is... an arch-reactionary, a guy to the right of Attila the Hun," Faigin says. "His work is very scary. He made these horrifically kitschy paintings that are almost, like, Nazi."
Where does the Aristides Atelier actually fall between, say, feminist performance art and Hitler?
Unlike Gage Academy, the Aristides Atelier is accredited with an organization called the Art Renewal Center, an organization whose chief presence is a website. The rhetoric on the site is identical to that of Gammell and Lack, which isn't so different from Hitler's writings on art, as the writer Gregory J. Scheckler noted in an essay last year.
"We at the Art Renewal Center have fully and fairly analyzed [modernism's] theories and have found them wanting in every respect, devoid of substance and built on a labyrinth of easily disproved fallacies, suppositions, and hypotheses," the ARC declares in its founding statement.
Hitler's taste for pastoral scenes and mythical figures is infamous; as Scheckler points out, he characterized artistic motivations such as "inner experience" as "dumb, mendacious excuses, this claptrap of jabbering [that] will no longer be accepted as excuses or even recommendations for worthless, integrally unskilled products."
The ARC, which denies photography as an art form, lists Aristides as a Living Master, and a glowing review of her 2006 book Classical Drawing Atelier appears on its home page. But Aristides doesn't see herself as an ideologue. She has a dry, direct way about her, and in her critiques of students, she sticks to what's on the paper or the canvas—"you're looking tactilely instead of visually," "what we're looking for here is an extension of your value range."
If you press her, the most controversial thing she'll say is that she believes in objective beauty. She describes Gammell as a sort of wild animal who feared extinction and lashed out. When she studied in Lack's studio in 1992, Lack himself was already retired; she studied with his followers.
"It's like with your parents; there are many things we agree on, and many things we disagree on," she says. "For instance, I didn't get the impression that they liked women very much, so that certainly is a departure."
The students in the Aristides Atelier say it is worlds away from the art programs they floundered in, and some also see it in the traditional sense of neoclassicism throughout history, as an escape from contemporary life, in this case from TV and celebrity culture. Whatever their beliefs, from Buddhist to career-driven, the students all agree on what Portlander Eduardo Fernandez says distinguishes the Aristides Atelier: "You're doing the work instead of reading and writing about it."
The students' heroes vary—from Willem de Kooning, who had classical training before becoming a master abstractionist, to Leonardo—and the students all talk about developing their own voices after they leave the atelier.
Most of all, Aristides wants to provide space where students don't have to argue and debate each other about style, but can simply learn the trade. "I just want to do this without fighting about it," she says.
Webmaster Brian Yoder says the ARC is growing in popularity, to a high last year of 52 million hits from 5.5 million unique visitors. Aristides also finds that her workshops are filling up quickly now that word has gotten out about what she does. When the atelier is on break in the summers, she teaches classes that book up months in advance.
Classical technique, she says, is a balm.
"The more serious life is getting, the more ironic or funny art doesn't seem to live up," she says. "Ten to twelve years ago, there were only a handful of ateliers. It's a great time to be doing this."
And while Gage Academy founder Faigin supports Aristides, he thinks it's a great time to be doing something entirely different.
Since 2001, Faigin has been reviewing art for KUOW. Recently, he has praised exhibitions he'd once have mocked. He's begun a regular lecture series at Gage on contemporary artists, especially painters like John Currin and Dana Schutz, and it irritates him when the classical atelier students don't attend his contemporary lectures.
He has started hiring contemporary artists represented by the leading galleries in Seattle to teach at Gage—Patrick Holderfield, known for his large-scale, chaotic drawings and his enigmatic installations; Joseph Park, a pop-influenced painter; and abstractionist Margie Livingston. The philosophies of these artists may challenge or even contradict the school's founding dogma, but Faigin is inviting the conflict. It's as though he's realized he's been oversheltering his children. But is there a danger in letting them out into the world?
Seattle has another example of an institution that went from old-school to up-to-date overnight. Until three years ago, the Frye Art Museum was a private, sleepy museum centered around a so-so collection of 19th-century academic paintings of maidens, ducks, and the like. It got a brain transplant when it hired a contemporary art curator, who came in and turned the museum's devotion to traditional painting and drawing into an exploration of all kinds of representational art, in all mediums.
The Frye is undeniably more interesting than it once was. It is also no longer the standard bearer for an easily defined set of principles, and relies more heavily on the ideas and execution of the people who run it.
When Faigin and Belyea came of age in 1970s New York, an academy strictly devoted to figurative painting and drawing would have been countercultural, considering the conceptual approaches at mainstream art schools and in galleries and museums. But as the late 20th century progressed, the art world developed a near-allergy to making declarations that any one style or motivation was the right one. Styles once considered retrograde were decriminalized. Faigin is simply catching up.
But, in addition, he has always had more-subtle intentions than the school's one-line slogan about classical training would indicate. When the couple originally named the school the Academy of Realist Art, they meant it as a joking oxymoron, since the realist movement in art was a turn against the idealizing that went on in classical academies. Nobody got the joke.
"It's funny that the art world has shifted to make what we do look more mainstream," Faigin says. "Mimetic realism is not coming back, but the idea of mastery as something that gets rewarded in the art world—that seemed to be on its way out 15 or 20 years ago."
"The school's at a turning point," he continues. "We're great at the how of art—the stuff university art departments are allergic to teaching because it smacks of the vocational, the technical, the mundane, the physical. But we're not so great at the why."
"The why" is the specialty of the university art departments that the Aristides Atelier students complain about.
Faigin has a vision for the future of Gage Academy.
"There would be several ateliers as headstrong as the Aristides, clashing in the hallways like the Jets and the Sharks," he says.
The school would be a universe with its own charged-up avant-garde, old guard, and "radical center," as the author Frederick Turner would call it, a faction rejecting both.
If Faigin seems to long for an atmosphere like 1970s New York, where artists wore their stylistic loyalties and defections like team colors, this time around, in the school, he wants to put everybody on an equal playing field. The prospect sounds a lot like the project of the contemporary art world at large, where, since anything goes, everything must stand on its own merits, outside dogma. Gage's merits will continue to be an emphasis on skill, Faigin says, but beyond that, who can say what evolves?
"Microcommunities, subcultures—art has always survived out of these minicommunities!" he says.
To round out Gage's profile, Faigin is adding classes in 20th-century art history. He also wants more ateliers—currently there are two smaller ateliers in addition to the Aristides Atelier and a more expressive one run by Mark Kang-O'Higgins. In the Kang-O'Higgins Atelier, one student responded to an assignment with a film and an installation. Another is a graffiti artist the school helped spring from a detention center, who is currently working on an exquisitely modeled drawing of a spray-paint can with breasts.
"Mark is forcing them at a much younger stage to wonder" what comes after skill building, Faigin said. "If you see a show by Juliette's students, they're all mini-mes. Mark's are nothing like him."
Faigin is considering a mural atelier, introducing issues of public art. He wants Michael Howard to consider designing an atelier—Howard, a painter who this year made a surprising switch from muted scenes of houses and buildings to rainbow-bright total abstraction. Faigin is taken with displays of conviction.
But "when [Gage] starts branching out, in abstraction, in landscape, that's when they're not so hot," said Norman Lundin, emeritus UW painting professor and a member of the board of directors at Gage, which is a nonprofit. "I've told them that."
In her small corner of the Aristides Atelier, Chung puts the final touches on a drawing of a white plaster bust, maybe copied from a Roman-empire sculpture, of a young woman missing a nose.
Chung points to another drawing, a view of one of Chung's favorite models, with the paper left blank where the model's clothes would be. The drawing is the beginning of a series Chung wants to start outside the atelier, of figures whose faces and exposed body parts are classically drawn, but whose clothing is depicted another way, maybe using the Chinese calligraphy Chung considers her artistic roots, or printmaking, or based in her lingering admiration, left over from university, of conceptual sculpture and installation.
"Once they've had a chance to study as hard as they can, they go off, and then there's a period where they'll make it their own, and then just watch out," Aristides says.
"I'm curious to see what happens when they get out into the world," Faigin says. "They are going to have to deal with all the contradictions, and the adversities, and the rejections. They will have a powerful set of tools, but collisions are going to happen. Some of them aren't going to be satisfied with being relegated to realist-art ghettos."
All the same things could be said of Gage.
What will happen when it gets out into the world?
The risk is in the name. A "gage" is a piece you put on the table to gamble, Faigin emphasizes. It's the glove you throw on the ground to challenge a duel.
"I think Gage is one-third of the way to its institutional destiny," Belyea says. "Our mission is world domination of visual art. Seeing things new. Being bold. Getting rid of the banal."