Whitehot Magazine

Rebecca R. Peel Imagines What Will Last in We’re All Thinking It

Installation view. Photo by Chris Uhren.

By EMMA RIVA May 12, 2024 

Rebecca R. Peel has the air of someone from another world, but she’s really from Wyoming. Around her neck, the artist wears a bolo tie made of a shoestring and two bullets. A sweatshirt tied around her waist reads Rodeo Dreams in rhinestones. Two butterfly clips gleam pink and white in her long, sable hair. In the hilliness of Pittsburgh, where Peel’s solo exhibition We’re all thinking it takes place, the American West may as well be another planet. We’re all thinking it opened April 19 at Romance an apartment gallery run by Pittsburgh-born writer and curator Margaret Kross. Getting into Romance requires walking through Kross’s kitchen, where every time I’ve been there the stovetop digital clock flashes 12:00. Kross began exhibiting in ROMANCE in 2023, first only in its basement space, but she’s now expanded out into the main veranda. French doors and wide windows cast an airy brightness into the room that makes up the gallery.  

Romance has some serious art world bonafides---Kross has worked at the Whitney Museum and in gallery positions at Paula Cooper and Laura Getlen. But the gallery is a cozy, lowkey space, frequented by members of the Pittsburgh DIY music scene as much as curators or gallerists. (One guest who walked into We’re all thinking it was a childhood friend of Kross’s that owns and operates a local sauna). Arriving at We’re all thinking it felt like showing up to a friend’s house, with Peel’s artwork as built in a conversation topic. Many of the materials Peel wore for the opening of We’re all thinking it, the bullet casings, leather, denim, and even butterfly clips, appear in her work. Of the bullet casings, Peel said “they’re always just kind of around” in the landscape where she lives, left in the grass or on roadsides. “I can go basically anywhere and find bullet casings. They’re these potently violent symbols already detonated.”  

Before viewing the show, I had read Kross’s curatorial statement that honed in on Peel’s piece Cradle to grave (2024) which features a handkerchief reading Til death do us part. Kross wrote: “’Til death do us part’ remains a forever contract with your god or legal firm even as wildfires burn. What do we want a commitment to forever for?” Something I found fascinating was that Peel and Kross offered completely different explanations of the show’s theme. While Kross focused on what doesn’t last in her reflections, Peel focused on what does. “I was thinking of a post-anthropocentric world, what will be left and how people will make sense of it,” she said. 

Installation view. Photo by Chris Uhren.

What Peel thinks will be left behind is a mixture of Americana and the absurd. From her early years in rural Colorado to her current life in Wyoming, she’s gotten to see the fantasy of the West alongside the billionaires that ski in it. The show greets you in Kross’s kitchen with a series called mouth piece (snaffle) (2024), different types of horse bits embroidered onto Levi’s denim. “What if horses had these bits in their mouths and humans just disappeared, and they were just stuck like that?” She said. “We’ve created all these things, like oil rigs, too—if we disappear, they’re just sitting there under the ocean.” To her, livestock was the perfect example of this concept. “We seem to revere cows and horses, yet also treat them like shit. How can you love something so much and yet denigrate it?”

This question runs through the show. Kross’s note about marriage feels relevant here. While society at large holds up marriage as sacred, one of the few ceremonies where anachronisms of holy vows still exists, it also feels more meaningless than ever in a world where spouses share wedding cakes depicting each other chained together and miserable on a cake topper. A meditation in Peel’s work is that the thing you love the most is often what you feel most violent towards. The pageantry of equestrian sports in the form of the bits, saddles, and horseshoes is extravagant and dignified, but it’s also a form of capture and control. A few of Peel’s pieces reference a sentimental girlhood of butterfly clips and lock-and-key diaries, making a parallel between the horses’ riding gear and the sparkly trappings of femininity that might hide a deeper subjugation. 

Everything is handmade by Peel except for the fabric of the handkerchief and a silver horse trophy in Gymkhanaclast (2024). In Tensitivity (ode to sensible restraint) (2024), Peel rigged a walnut wood side table with dacron fiber thread into small, delicate sculpture. The show keeps from being overly conceptual when it leans into Peel’s craftmanship ability. In someone else’s hand, its idea might have become too vague, but the handmade nature of Peel’s work gives it personality.

Installation view. Photo by Chris Uhren.

We’re all thinking it is installed minimally, with works on the fabric and wood dotted across the floor and on the walls of Kross’s space like brush on the floor of a forest. ROMANCE’s basement doorway leads to a highlight of the show, the magnanimously titled Bonecrusher fantasy skin respawn (icon of reckoning and recourse) (2022-2024). This large hanging piece, which boasts a material list that could be some sort of deranged shopping list—oil on canvas, 9mm Luger bullet casings, water stained wood, aluminum and copper hardware, regulation competition horseshoes, and rope—depicts a racehorse named Bonecrusher looking somberly out at the viewer from a dreamlike landscape inspired by a fantasy video game. Kross’s gallery allows artists to add small Easter eggs to the space, and viewers might notice a lenticular Looney Tunes Wild West sticker on the façade above the staircase to the basement. As the light shifts, Donald Duck’s desert getup changes and cartoon cacti fade away. 

There are times in We’re all thinking it when I wished for a little bit more, maybe a few more pieces as large and absurd as Bonecrusher, but that’s a good thing to want out of a show. It’s always better to be interested enough in the work that I want more. And part of the We’re all thinking it’s charm lies in its subtlety and use of the gallery as negative space for Peel’s imagination to reside in. Romance is only a year old and one of the things that feels exciting about it is the room to grow. I remain on Peel’s question of How can you love something so much and denigrate it? A gallery called Romance feels like a place for precious things, and part of what makes something precious is its fragility. Peel’s work leaves me with a meditation on the fact that good art is both fragile and strong, both hanging in a delicate balance and standing the test of time.

Rebecca R. Peel’s We’re all thinking it runs through May 24, 2024 at Romance (5429 Howe Street). WM

Emma Riva

Emma Riva is an art writer, author, and curator based in Pittsburgh, PA. She serves as the managing editor of UP, an international online and print magazine covering street art, graffiti, fine arts, and their intersections in popular culture. She is also a masthead staff writer at Belt Magazine and a contributor to Bunker Review, Widewalls, Carnegie Magazine, and Rust Belt Girl. She published her first novel, Night Shift in Tamaqua, in 2021. More about her can be found on her website and Instagram.

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