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An in­sider’s per­spec­tive on the ac­claimed con­tem­po­rary Filipino painter Elmer Bor­lon­gan

Elmer Bor­lon­gan—the artist with an ex­tra­or­di­nary eye for the or­di­nary and a keen sen­si­tiv­ity to his sur­round­ings— rises to the top with a mile­stone show at Manila’s MET Mu­seum, writes Sheila Ramos

With a par­tic­u­lar hu­mil­ity to his be­ing and a stead­fast­ness to his words, one gets the sense that this man has wres­tled with his in­ner sen­si­bil­i­ties to come up with an iden­tity that is dis­tinctly Emong Bor­lon­gan. The man be­hind those bald “dis”fig­ures bil­lows to the top, with un­ques­tion­able skill and a keen sen­si­tiv­ity to his sur­round­ings which have be­come fod­der for his work. He be­guiles, and his life is proof that this uni­verse con­spires to make things hap­pen for the ded­i­cated and un­mov­able few.

Fresh from a very well-at­tended open­ing of his 25-year “sur­vey” show—as he feels too young to have a “ret­ro­spec­tive”—the show aptly called Elmer Bor­lon­gan: An Ex­tra­or­di­nary Eye for the Or­di­nary runs at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum un­til 28 March 2018. It is, by any mea­sure, a land­mark show with 150 paint­ings and 50 draw­ings, made pos­si­ble by the painter’s ob­ses­sive habit of doc­u­ment­ing the prove­nance of his every work. Bor­lon­gan knew ex­actly who had each of his works and col­lec­tors willingly obliged in lend­ing to the show.

His pas­sion for paint­ing started at a very young age. In his early teens, he was sent to an all-around painter, Fer­nando Sena, who taught him ba­sic tech­niques from still lifes and land­scapes, to por­traits and fig­ure draw­ings; us­ing dif­fer­ent medi­ums. There was sim­plic­ity in Bor­lon­gan’s ap­proach then—favour­ing hu­man fig­ures, aspiring to do what his hero Bo­tong Fran­cisco had done.

While at U.P., Pro­fes­sor Nestor Vin­luan re­de­fined art as Bor­lon­gan knew it and led him to shift par­a­digms. Be­yond tech­nique and the skill to im­i­tate, there is con­cept and the­ory, the nar­ra­tive that makes one’s work rel­e­vant and unique. As a col­lege stu­dent, Bor­lon­gan was drawn to the mod­ern ex­pres­sion­ist painters Basquiat and Har­ing, whose street and graf­fiti style com­ple­mented his love for rock mu­sic and punk. “Are we up to par with the in­ter­na­tional art move­ments?,” was his ques­tion. He ex­per­i­mented on ges­tu­ral paint­ings, us­ing fast strokes, im­bib­ing the en­ergy of the busy street in Man­daluy­ong where he grew up. And, with the Peo­ple Power Revo­lu­tion and the Men­di­ola mas­sacre as his back­drop, he painted Re­hi­men, which won Sil­ver in the 1988 Metrobank an­nual paint­ing com­pe­ti­tion, im­mor­tal­is­ing the Marl­boro cig­a­rette logo as a sym­bol of de­struc­tive power, guarded by dogs, while an ema­ci­ated street kid lies be­low a bound­ary,

high­light­ing in­equities in so­ci­ety. He thought about the role of the artist in so­ci­ety, gave up paint­ing for per­sonal self­ex­pres­sion and fo­cused on anti-dic­ta­tor­ship com­men­taries.

The re­al­i­ties of be­ing a painter be­gan to sink in when work was slow and con­signed to fig­ure draw­ings for news­pa­per comic strips. The thought of giv­ing up paint­ing as a ca­reer did cross his mind. For­tu­itously, Dr. Joven Cua­nang paved the way for Bor­lon­gan’s first solo show in 1993. It was in this show that he launched his bald fig­ures with body parts of al­tered pro­por­tions, in­spired by the bald men he grew up watch­ing in the men­tal hos­pi­tal down the street from where he lived. Hat­ing Ka­p­atid from his 1993 show was his poignant vi­su­al­i­sa­tion of brotherly love, de­spite lack of ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions. At this stage of his life as a painter, Bor­lon­gan latches onto a highly con­toured style—dis­tort­ing the hu­man fig­ure as if look­ing through con­cave lenses—that is uniquely his own. By the late 90s, Bor­lon­gan had fos­tered a few loyal fol­low­ers who then mul­ti­plied. The rest is his­tory as we now know it.

Bor­lon­gan is ea­ger to men­tion that he is one part to an artist cou­ple life that he shares with wife Plet Boli­pata, his muse, and whose al­mond eyes have shaped the deep stare one gets from look­ing at Bor­lon­gan’s works. He and Plet share homes in Marik­ina and Zam­bales, both busy work­shops, be­ing the pro­lific artists that they are. Plet ex­udes bright­ness and con­stant mo­tion, a true com­ple­ment to Bor­lon­gan’s calm de­meanor.

As a novice col­lec­tor, I have been a vic­tim of both pub­lic­ity and love-at-first-sight. It was the lat­ter for me when I first en­coun­tered Bor­lon­gan’s mon­u­men­tal Pag-ahon piece at a friend’s home, 10 fish­er­men in fist and fer­vour, push­ing their boat to shore af­ter a day at sea. His 2012 work Dy­na­mite Kid makes one pause and think of the ir­ra­tional­i­ties in life: it shows a half-limbed fish­er­man, al­most un­mind­ful of the dis­abil­ity caused by dy­na­mite fish­ing, since his bas­ket is full of fish, with a com­pan­ion who play­fully jumps into the wa­ter. Bor­lon­gan has a huge fol­low­ing not be­cause his pieces pro­vide a pretty back­drop for an empty wall, but be­cause they never fail to tell a dauntless story. His re­lent­less nar­ra­tive makes him an an­chor in this oth­er­wise tran­sient world of art.

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