Nothing can prepare a viewer for the experience of seeing a full-size skeleton of a 6,000-pound rhinoceros in the main gallery of Boston Sculptors. In Love to the Letter and the Letters Spelled Death (on view through October 2, 2022), Jonathan Latiano has created a love letter to an endangered animal that has been approaching extinction. Although he began work on the southern white rhinoceros skeleton as a tribute to his wife, Carly Barron, an ecologist/zoologist who has worked in Namibia, Mexico, Peru, and Canada, it quickly evolved into a work about death brought about by the state of the planet.
Latiano started on the rhino in the first year of the pandemic and completed the entire installation over the course of the next two. The solitary black form, made of carved wood and polystyrene, sits atop a five-foot-high mound of shredded foam. Towering over visitors, at once powerful and vulnerable, the dinosaur-like skeleton, with its slightly awkward splayed stance, large hoofs, and gigantic tilted head, is affecting and unexpectedly engaging. The somber color reflects the rhino’s near-extinction, matching the tens of thousands of hand-cut pieces of sound-absorbing foam.
At the other end of the gallery, a smaller mound of foam serves as a platform for a musician. The haunting music of a cello, played by Nicole Boguslaw, a member of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, echoes through the space. The cellist is usually represented by a video projection, but at the opening reception, she was present in person. Dressed in black, she emanated a sense of seriousness and inner peace as she gracefully interwove and improvised on the works of Bach, Casals, and Saint-Saëns. It was a first collaboration for both artists. Inspired by a Janet Cardiff installation that he had seen at MoMA PS1 in New York, Latiano chose the cello because for its ability to affect listeners “in [their] bones.” As the music flows through the space, viewers are engulfed by waves of sensation, emotion, and thought. Boguslaw brings to mind the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played for 22 days during the siege to mark the deaths of 22 people killed while queuing for bread. Here, Boguslaw serenades the rhino, as well as viewers; for we humans are also threatened by climate change and the violence of world events.
Latiano has integrated many strands of his personal history into this work, which contributes to its power. As a child, frequent visits to the gigantic dioramas in the natural history museums of Philadelphia and New York inspired him to think of becoming a “dinosaur scientist,” if not an artist. After the death of his grandfather, who had a woodworking shop where he created colorful, hand-signed fishing lures, Latiano inherited the tools and hundreds of the works. He continues to share his knowledge as the Director of Art and Art History at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Love to the Letter and the Letters Spelled Death is incisive and poetic. Clearly, Latiano’s passion and ruminations on “deep time,” from prehistory into the future, are driving elements. He feels that “art is one of the most unique and beautiful things our species does, and it’s been proven time and time again that it can make a difference.” This mesmerizing tour de force also incorporates viewers. In fact, we seem to complete it. The rhino’s plight needs witnesses, the music needs listeners, and, as viewers, each of us needs to reflect on our individual and collective actions. Accompanied by the transcendent musical love poem, these elements come together to create a whole, and we are enveloped in a fragile moment of time beyond time where we become as one.