Elmer Borlongan is at the forefront of contemporary Filipino painting because his art manages to be accessible while losing none of its depth or psychological resonance.
As Ambeth Ocampo noted in his notes for Borlongan’s landmark 2018 exhibit, “An Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary”:
“His images sing. Their melodies cover music, folk religion, journeys and destinations, people like animals and animals like people, people at work, individuals in isolation or fused in unity, people at play, the dismembered, disabled and dispossessed. In all things, good and bad, Borlongan’s steady refrain is hope.”
Enthusiasts can take a deep dive into Borlongan’s art with the launch of “Elmer Borlongan: An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life,” a comprehensive two-volume monograph on the painter’s body of work thus far.
Itself an art object, the massive (13 pounds—yes, we weighed it) work consists of two volumes housed in a slipcase designed to look like a premium vinyl boxed set, reflecting one of the artist’s continuing passions: music.
The first volume, “An Ordinary Man,” focuses on Borlongan’s paintings, representing 25 years of work. It comes with a critical essay by Oscar Campomanes, titled “Ways of Hearing: Auditing Borlongan as ‘Emong.’”
The second volume, “An Extraordinary Life,” features hundreds of Borlongan’s drawings and sketches from 1978 to 2017.
It also includes “A Life of Light and Silence” by Cyan Abad-Jugo, a biographical article on the artistic life of Borlongan and his wife Plet Bolipata; “Engaging the Soul: The Mentorship of Elmer Borlongan” by Ma. Victoria Herrera, in which the artist acknowledges the influence of key mentors such as Fernando Sena, Dr. Joven Cuanang, Nestor Vinluan and Bobi Valenzuela; and “Collecting 101,” a conversation by book editor Rica Bolipata-Santos with four collectors of Borlongan’s works.
Lifestyle interviewed the artist by e-mail from his studio in San Antonio, Zambales.
PDI Lifestyle: What was the genesis of the book project?
Elmer Borlongan: The book project started three years ago. We were targeting to launch it in time for my 25-year survey show at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, but we didn’t finish on time. I think it is also the right time to collate all my works in a coffee-table book while I still remember the details of my paintings and who owns them. It helps that I was organized from the beginning in documenting my early works.
When we started with the book project, my wife Plet, being the project manager, hired a good team, consisting of an editor, book designer and photographer, and included a painter/restorer to clean all my works in the collectors’ homes before being photographed for the book.
What’s the significance of having two volumes, one for drawings and another for paintings, ordinary man versus extraordinary life?
The first volume consists of my paintings since I started taking art lessons in 1978 under Fernando Sena up until my recent works from 2018. The essay is written by Oscar V. Campomanes from a scholarly point of view. I came from a middle class family living in Mandaluyong, and grew up with my parents having no background in art. Being the middle child among five brothers, I was lucky because my parents were encouraging and supportive of my interest in drawing and painting.
The second volume consists of my works on paper and pages from my sketchbook from my childhood years up to the present. The articles in the second book are more personal, and this volume is dedicated to my wife Plet, whose patience and love provided me with the kind of support I needed to be able to devote myself to being an artist.
Becoming a painter was not an easy journey after leaving art school in the late 1980s. I had to take odd jobs to make a living and support myself. But I was persistent in my love for painting. I met good and kind people along the way who were helpful in fulfilling my dreams to be a painter.
A new phase
With the book out, do you feel that you’re at the start of a new phase in your life, a new artistic period? In what way?
Yes. I am exploring new themes and techniques in my current works. My composition is more dramatic, and I am beginning to paint without using a brush in some parts of my canvas. I leave blank spaces in my paintings. Nothingness and silence are as important as the sound and the fury of the city.
“Elmer Borlongan: An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life” is the first publishing venture of Pasilyo Country Living and Bookstore out of San Antonio, Zambales. The bookstore is actually a vintage VW “kombi” parked in the middle of a mango orchard, reflecting Pasilyo’s thrust of “bringing books to the countryside in a rustic, hip and fun setting.”
The book launch is from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., May 3, Art Cube Gallery, 2316 Chino Roces Ave., Makati. Suggested retail price is P15,000 for the two volumes with slipcase. The artist will be on hand for book signing. Buyers can avail of a 20-percent discount at the launch.