Rivers of chaos

Truckee resident Nance Leikhim’s paintings of flowing water seem troubling, abstract

“The River” by Nance Leikhim.

“The River” by Nance Leikhim.

Photo by David Robert

I am standing at the Northwest Reno Library, looking at “The River,” the gargantuan (65 inches by 97.5 inches) centerpiece of Nance Leikhim’s Color, Form and Surface in the Contemporary Landscape.

I have mixed feelings. The painting depicts a massive river, with green and blue and white hues, gushing down a hill, reaching a steep cliff and going over it to create a waterfall. This is obviously an out-of-control body of water. There’s a glimpse of a riverbank in the bottom left corner, but there’s no bank on the other side, giving the piece an un-riverlike, chaotic feel.

Leikhim’s huge, globby brush strokes—streaks and clumps of paint are noticeable throughout the painting—add to this chaos. In the gray sky above this river are eight symbols, using lines and either small circles or “x” marks; they almost look like clips of sheet music. I like the lines and the visuals in the painting, although the obvious chaos of the river makes me feel quite uncomfortable.

Then I look at the artist’s statement, where I learn, among other things, that the symbols in “The River” refer to water and are from an ancient book of Chinese wisdom called I Ching, or “the book of change.” Fair enough. I am down with that. But I can’t say the same thing about Leikhim’s statement about “The River.” It baffled me.

“My largest oil painting, ‘The River,’ started with the idea of capturing the peaceful feeling of being near falling water,” Leikhim says. “I live and paint on a bluff above the Truckee River, and whether I drive east or west, I must follow the river’s course up or down these mountains. I realize now how profoundly the river has imprinted its image on my life and senses.”

Wow. There is nothing peaceful about “The River” to me. If I saw this river in real life, I’d probably wet myself.

This feeling of chaos is invoked by many of Leikhim’s other paintings as well. Her rivers lack realism—they don’t flow naturally, and because of Leikhim’s big brush strokes, they sometimes have a feel that is more stringy than fluid. Take “The River/Falls” (42 inches by 48 inches). It shows a calm, fluid-looking river turning into a torrent as it goes over rocks and into a waterfall. The calm part of the river, on the left, has some beautiful color—you can see the blue-green surface under the clear waters—but when the water reaches the fall, chaos strikes. The water makes an impossible turn toward the viewer as it hits the waterfall. Rivers don’t make on-a-dime right-hand turns.

These impossibilities are explained somewhat by Leikhim’s statement, which states that her oil paintings “aren’t ‘pictures of something,’ but objects with their own quality that may happen to be figurative. Each painting takes on a life of its own, demanding this or that from me. My first intention develops as the painting grows.”

While her larger paintings almost all have that chaotic feel, some of her smaller ones do not—at least not to the same extent. “Spring Thaw” (17 inches by 14 inches) and “Spring Thaw at Hampshire Rocks” (14 inches by 17 inches) depict relatively gentle scenes of streams coming from snowy forests. “Spring Thaw” shows the stream gently flowing down a rocky bank into a river; this is the most serene of her paintings. But “Hampshire Rocks,” while calmer than the others, also has an element of chaos, as the “stream” dashes down rocks, with white foam and a sense of speed. It looks more like a flash flood than a simple “thaw.”

As I left Leikhim’s exhibit, one thought occurred to me: These aren’t your grandparents’ landscape paintings. These are paintings of rivers that exude chaos and defy physics. They’re certainly different. And to some, they’ll seem uncomfortably different.