True West: KAROLIINA PAATOS’s American Cowboy

The music video for Madonna’s 2001 single “Don’t Tell Me” opens on the pop star strutting down a dusty American highway. A loud truck passes, blowing the cowboy hat off her head, while the frame slowly widens to reveal her on an automated walkway in front of a projection screen. Here, director Jean-Baptiste Mondino informs the viewer that Madonna is not really taking a lone walk in the desert and her dancers are not “real” cowboys. The camp fantasy of the cowboy – one of America’s great cultural myths – is so entangled with the reality of its actual occupation that the difference is hard to spot. Even real herders captured in harsh HD, like those of Finnish photographer Karoliina Paatos, reek of Billy the Kid. In her latest publication, American Cowboy, one expects the screen to drop with the turn of every page. It is as if Paatos’s cowboys are constantly tapping on the fourth wall, leaving smudges on the glass.

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America invented Hollywood, which invented celebrity, which invented reality television. Cynically romantic, these are its national tools of self-mythology, and they are especially effective abroad. The cowboy is America’s most renowned brand ambassador. A byproduct of its imperialistic “Manifest Destiny” spirit, he stands for everything that is dirty and “real,” from his fingernails to our fantasies. Paatos’s photograph of a cowboy figurine perched atop a dusty stereo captures his meta-existence, because it is as close to “the real thing” as those who still do this job. Even living-breathing cowboys tend to look like statues: cartoonishly masculine and comfortably ignorant – the strong and silent type. Galloping through dust and sunshine on the back of his horse, he smells of freedom. He has a good heart. An attraction to the cowboy is synonymous with an attraction to the USA’s concept of self.

This cultural fabrication is so potent that it drew Finnish Paatos to non-places in Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Idaho over the past six years. As she familiarized herself with cattle-tending families, hoop-earringed cowgirls, queer cowboys, and Miss Arizona Gay Rodeo contestants, the parameters of the myth turned out to be reductive, but its core irrefutable. Shot in the Great Basin area, American Cowboy is a granular representation of the cowboy’s contemporary existence. Alone at night, a man sits in the driver’s seat of his pick-up, his face lit by the glow of his laptop. A young girl poses contrapposto in a patch of earth littered with shotgun cartridges, her trucker hat printed with a stop sign that reads “STAHP.” These moments of banality highlight the gigantic gap between straw-chewing cowboy reality and a viewer’s coffee-table modernity.

But Paatos’s photographs are luminous and empathetic in a way that surpasses documentary. Like Madonna in “Don’t Tell Me,” her American Cowboy bathes in cold golden rays and runs Mother Earth through his hands. The photo book’s landscapes and portraits are all drenched in the BBQ sauce of Western surrealism. They depict the impact cultural fictions have on reality.

American Cowboy is published by The Angry Bat (Maribor, 2016).

Berlin Review 2
Karoliina Paatos
American Cowboy
The Angry Bat

Published in

Issue #32 — Summer 2017"US vs. THEM"

Issue # 32 — Summer 2017

Issue #32 – Summer 2017: “US vs. THEM”

How do you find truth in an age without facts? The answer: wake up and stick together. In this issue’s dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY explores how the Global Right Wing’s blatant disregard for reality has given us all a license to become Nonsense Warriors. Turning away from “them” and towards “us,” CATHERINE OPIE, NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE, and STEFANO PILATI take us into their inner circles of friends, while COLLIER SCHORR turns BELLA HADID into Lisa Lyon. We revisit the work of MICHAEL SCHMIDT, and how his community workshops turned Berlin into a cauldron of contemporary photography. JACKIE NICKERSON shows us what Robert Longo looks like with a faster Internet connection, while CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us into his kitchen to explore the post-digital nature of food. We speak with VIRGIL ABLOH as he plots a fashion industry coup d’état and follow JASON DILL on a skate odyssey to hell and back to Fucking Awesome. And, last but not least, we make a pilgrimage to Santo Sospir, the villa on the Riviera where JEAN COCTEAU created his greatest Gesamtkunstwerk.

Also included with the issue, our “HEAT UP HADID” TRANSFER KIT which allows you to create your own t-shirt emblazoned with this issue’s BELLA HADID cover.

Learn more about the issue below:

Nothing makes sense. Nothing ever will again. The year 2016 marked a total rupture in the theater of politics. Even if the damaging effects of Donald Trump’s election somehow prove to be short-lived, his rise indicates a crisis wherein digital acceleration has led to political regression. In our dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY creates a handbook for our new political paradigm. Its central hypothesis: Only within the chaos of this media overload will we discover what is real again.

“I am not sure if the sculptures were even subjects for her photographs …” For her first ever magazine editorial, “Heroines: Paris/Los Angeles,” artist CATHERINE OPIEteamed up with artistic director NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE to create a study on the power of classicism and ambiguity. The exploration begins on the beige stone of the Louvre’s sculpture garden and continues to Opie’s studio in Los Angeles, documenting a sprawling circle of friends and acquaintances.

On a surrealist journey into the past, Martin Mosebach visits the summer retreat of JEAN COCTEAU. At the Villa Santo Sospir, the artist spent a decade’s worth of summers smoking opium and creating his largest total artwork.

Back with a vengeance for her third 032c cover story, COLLIER SCHORR teams up with fashion director Mel Ottenberg for “Smith & Wesson Blues,” a shoot with BELLA HADID, inspired by the body builder and Robert Mapplethorpe muse Lisa Lyon.

“Duchamp is my lawyer.” From his fortress of irony, designer VIRGIL ABLOH is set on turning fashion into the industrial arm of the art world. In conversation with 032c’s managing editor Thom Bettridge, he explains how streetwear is not just a fad, but a logic inspired by Dada and destined to dominate the digital age.

Accompanied by a re-print of MICHAEL SCHMIDT’s 2002 story for 032c, Kolja Reichert explores how the photographer’s community workshops from 1976 to 1986 create a style born out of the “Gray Island” of Berlin.

For the story “Energy Crisis,” photographer LUKAS WASSMANN and designer STEFANO PILATI shoot an editorial inside Michael Sailstorfer’s exhibition “Hitzefrei” at St. Agnes. As his first for a magazine editorial, Pilati’s styling includes garments from his own personal wardrobe.

“It’s an exhausting reality,” laughs JASON DILL. In an odyssey documented with drawings and pictures from his personal archive, the skate legend takes us to hell and back to Fucking Awesome.

In “Push Me Shove You Oh Yeah Says Who,” photographer JACKIE NICKERSON, along with fashion editor Marc Goehring and 032c apparel creative director Maria Koch, presents a yogic meditation on a white collar dystopia.

“I’m very bad at killing, in general.” As an antidote to postmodern culinary mediocrity, artist CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us to his concrete perch on the seaside of Ghana and guides us through the 11 points of his “Brutalist Kitchen Manifesto.”

In the “SSENSE Files,” we bring you scenes of cross-platform madness, including interviews with RICARDO BOFILL, PLAYBOI CARTI, CHITOSE ABE, CHRIS KRAUS, HENRY STAMBLER, AMINA BLUE, and 69.

In our second-ever “BERLIN REVIEW” section, we speak with JEFF KOONS about Plato, retrace MARTIN MARGIELA’s reign at Hermès, dive to the underwater tombs of PHARAOHS, and explore our favorite books of the season.

All this and more on 296 pages!