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.