There will always be paintings artists will find difficult to part with, art making often been likened to giving birth. Elmer Borlongan welcomed the challenge of celebrating his 25th year with a retrospective, despite the enormous work events of this nature usually entail. We’re guessing it is because it will allow him to reunite with some of his favorite works, works that gave him early recognition, those that remind him of his mentors, and mark turning points in his artistic evolution.
The day before Borlongan opened An Extraordinary Eye for The Ordinary at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, he gave us a guided tour of the show, revealing the stories and inspiration behind some of his works. The exhibition, comprised of a dizzying 150 paintings and 50 drawings, includes his famous “Pamilyang Menthol,” part of a four-piece collection he made when he was recognized for the CCP 13 Artists Award in 1994, and “Rehimen,” the painting that won him his first major art contest, the Metrobank Annual Painting Competition in 1988 (it won second prize). In between, there is his last collaboration with his wife Plet Bolipata, the works that speak of his love for music, his devotion to the plight of the ordinary Filipino, and pieces that point to periods of experimentation.
Through the years, the Borlongans have learned to keep at least a piece from each of Emong’s shows—if only to serve as memento, and to not to be outdone, one assumes, by his avid collectors (Paulino Que and Julius Babao among them) when it comes to growing a Borlongan collection. The couple’s effort made rounding up the collection for the retrospective just a little easier. An Extraordinary Eye for The Ordinary is not only a feast for the eyes, but proof of Borlongan’s unique contribution to Philippine art and the undiminished relevance of his work. Some may be more important to him than others, some more difficult to part with, but each represents a key period in his life and practice. We asked Emong to name for us the 10 works he deems most significant in his career, in the process telling us about his unique artistic journey.
1. Rehimen, Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, 1988
Gave Emong his first major recognition. Won second prize at the 1988 Metrobank Annual Painting Competition. At that time, art contests were a big part of a young artist’s life: winning means budget for materials and a chance to get your foot in the galleries who mostly favored established names. Rehimen is signature socialist-period Emong: the brushwork bold, the image clearly socially aware, depicting a seat of power (inspired by the Marlboro seal) guarded by a flock of dogs; below them a gaunt figure which the artist says represents the marginalized Filipinos. Without budget for a proper frame, Borlongan and his brother built the frame themselves and painted it red to match the image. “Kinarpintero namin ng kapatid ko. Naka-skwala naman ‘yan. Pero halatang hindi pa nakatam, diretso galing hardware,” the artist says, laughing at the memory.
2. Tampuhan, Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, 1992
Four years later, Emong would win the second prize honor at Metrobank again, this time for Tampuhan. The image is that of a family reunion and the setting is based on the interiors of the Antipolo home of Dr. Joven Cuanang, the art collector and patron of the artist group Salingpusa to which Emong belongs. It is one of his early attempts at conjuring the fisheye perspective. The title is lifted from one of the artworks depicted in the painting, a reproduction of Juan Luna’s Tampuhan, which was then a fixture at the doctor’s living room. Even the house’s statue of Our Lady of Antipolo occupies a premium spot in the painting which was rushed to make the Metrobank deadline. A feat considering Emong was also, during that time, at work with his Salingpusa comrades on the now-famous Karnabal mural commissioned by the CCP.
3. Pamilyang Menthol, Oil on canvas, 168 x 244 cm, 1994
While many look at this piece as a sensual image, owing to the languid lines that depict four human figures decadently enjoying what looks like post-coital puffs, Emong says Pamilyang Menthol is really just that: a family enjoying a smoke. It is one of four paintings he did for the exhibition that marked his being recognized in the 1994 CCP 13 Artists Award. One of the four, Laklak, is also in exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum while the other two have been acquired by the Singapore Art Museum.
4. Kumot, Acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm, 1993
This image of a street kid using his own shirt as blanket was sparked by a sighting of a street kid in the Cubao overpass. It is the same image that accompanied the invitation for his first one-man show in Boston Gallery. Boston, says Emong, was really built for Salingpusa by Cuanang who converted his apartment in Cubao to become an art space. “Kung hindi kayo maka-exhibit, gagawan ko na lang kayo ng gallery,” says Emong, echoing the doctor’s words. Most of the group’s early works were acquired by Cuanang. “Yung mga early works namin wala naman pumapansin,” the artist adds. In the Met show, Kumot appears with a pencil sketch study, which is usually the start of the artist’s process. From there, he will make color studies before finally painting on canvas. Kumot skipped the color studies.
5. The Gardeners, oil on canvas 46 x76 cm 1979
Won Honorable Mention in a YMCA art contest in 1979, when high schoolers were allowed, according to Emong, to join the college category. The style, and even the image, was inspired by an unfinished work named Camote Diggers by the great muralist Botong Francisco, one of Emong’s favorite painters. Like this Borlongan piece, the Francisco painting also had two male figures planting with their heads bowed.
6. Hibi, Oil on canvas 61 x 61 cm 1991
The image was inspired by a bird who just suffered a gunshot in Emong’s hometown Mandaluyong . Clearly a departure from the style he was getting known for, Hibi, which is a touch surreal, is representative of a time of experimentation—sparked by a need to do something different from the social realist work he took on as part of the art collective ABAY (Artista ng Bayan). It was an attempt to return to doing personal work. The fascination with the style, however, will be shortlived.
7. Order ni Misis, Oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm, 2005
“More or less, ito na yung direction na gusto ko gawin sa art ko,” says Emong about this work from his Boston Gallery show 13 years ago, citing its dramatic perspective, and the face’s exaggerated expression. Finding the style he can call his own took a while, the artist admits. “The search is really matagal,” he says, “the experimentation, [with] the form, the content. My early works have lesser colors. Habang tumatagal nadadagdagan ang palette ko.” The title of the piece comes from the tagline of the popular ad for Baguio Oil, the cement-filled cans the human figure tries to hold up in the painting.
8. Sundo, Oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm, 1994
From the show “God Bless Our Trip,” his second one-man exhibit, this piece is significant because a certain Ben Cabrera bought it. “I was overjoyed,” he told the Inquirer recently. “An artist that I looked up to had bought one of my works. It felt like validation.”
9. Gabay, Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, 1994
Formerly in the care of screenwriter Enrico Santos, it is now part of the famous collector Paulino Que’s crown jewels. Emong tried to replicate in this painting a scene he had witnessed while inside a bus along EDSA. “It looked like an apparition,” the artist recalls. “Then I realized it was just a statue. It was so lifelike.” He just injected the little details: a rosary he saw in his father’s car, the naughty look in the driver’s face as if suspicious his seatmate was up to no good. This was also the painting Plet Bolipata saw on the glass window while walking in Megamall one day in ’94. The same painting that made her want to meet the artist behind it. The artist she would later marry.
10. One-Man Show, Oil on canvas, 152 x 549, cm 2008
For this work commissioned by Paulino Que, the artist seems already in full control of his talents and confident with his composition. A scene straight out of an art show opening, it has all the necessary characters: the collector, the freeloader, the photographer and videographer, and the artists, all done in Emong’s signature disfigured faces, appearing as if viewed from a fisheye lens. Spectators unaware they are also being watched. The painting also has four of the artist’s previous works depicted on the walls, among them the previously mentioned Gabay. The staircase of the Boston Gallery appears at rightmost of the triptych, a wink at the artist’s early years.