Elmer Borlongan Celebrates 25 Years Painting the Pulse of the City
Henri Matisse doesn’t want me here.
At least that’s what I’m getting from the dog—named after the influential French artist—when I enter the gate of the Marikina home shared by artists Elmer Borlongan and Plet Bolipata Borlongan.
“Henri Matisse, why do you hate me?” I ask the dog, a handsome mix of mongrel and Labrador, as he barks at me and blocks the path to the house.
A possible explanation: “Henri is just Henri without the Matisse,” Elmer tells me later. Apparently, I’ve been getting the dog’s name wrong.
By the time I sit down in the Borlongans’ living room—a room with colorful patterns and textures like a
If Henri was a little restless, you have to forgive him. Until a year and a half ago, he roamed the wide open spaces of the Borlongans’ Zambales home, three hours away from Manila, where they’ve been living for the better part of the last 15 years.
The couple moved to a sprawling property, Plet’s family’s ancestral home, in 2002, when the urban activity that once inspired Elmer’s work—a signature of his ’90s and early ’00s ouvre—had become a distraction to their process.
When they moved, their Zambales home didn’t have cable TV or internet, which took some adjustment for the city boy who had grown up on the busy street of Nuevo de Pebrero in Mandaluyong. He recalls how he would see jeeps, tricycles, the themes and subject matter of his work, as soon as he stepped out of his home. “Pag
"Hindi Lang Pang Pamilya, Pang Towing Pa," oil on canvas, 2005, by Elmer Borlongan, from the Julius Babao collection.
It was a difficult adjustment but a necessary one. With no distractions, the Borlongans were able to commit to routines. Eventually, Elmer’s work began to veer away from urban life and take an interest in the rural.
If Elmer used to work deep into the night, the only time in city life you can feel alone with your thoughts, in Zambales, he would wake up at 6 a.m., walk the dog soon after, have breakfast at 7 a.m., start painting at 8 or 9 a.m., work until a lunch break at noon, and then continue working until 5 or 6 p.m.—as systematic and routine as a nine-to-five can be.
The Borlongans have found themselves back in the city because of two major retrospectives on Elmer’s work this year. In January, “Elmer Bolongan: An Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary,” a retrospective featuring significant works through the years curated by Ambeth Ocampo, opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The show is an indispensable survey of his work from his college days in the mid-’80s, to his time in social realist groups like Artista ng Bayan and Salingpusa soon after, to
On February 18, a retrospective featuring his personal collection of his works on paper opens at the Ateneo Art Gallery. Titled “Elmer Borlongan Draws The Line,” the show focuses on a crucial part of the artist’s process—his sketching and doodling. Elmer says when he isn’t painting, he is drawing. He brings a sketchbook with him wherever he goes, and he draws in it every day. “Pure expression, eh. It’s spontaneous and it’s what I’m going through in the moment.”
In March, an auction at the Peninsula Manila featuring his and Plet’s work will close a busy first quarter for the couple. The Marikina house’s lease, right on schedule, ends in March, marking two years since they moved back to the city to have a base while working on the retrospectives.
"Puppet Master," oil on canvas, 2005, from the Paulino and Hetty Que collection.
Over the last two years, by working on the perspectives, Elmer has had an active hand in how his work is going to be remembered—a luxury not afforded to every artist. He’s been able to work with the thrust. He works with found objects: scrap wood, metal, glass.
He suggests I look for “Pasky Borlongan” on Facebook and he begins to tell me about how his father got the nickname “Pasky” after the “rock star chess champ” Boris Spassky. Later, I realize Elmer got his nickname, Emongsky, from his father.
What the young Elmer also got from his father was the clear picture of an adult who had structure and work ethic, who was a solid, dependable presence to his family and his work—qualities that have served Elmer well throughout his career. Qualities that have allowed him to amass the body of work he’s been able to.
We usually romanticize disorder when we talk about our artists, how drama, passion, and even self-destruction can become fuel for the creation of great art. Sometimes, we even forgive our monsters, for the sake of great art.
But in Elmer, we see the benefits of reliability and consistency, of slow, steady, and good—and how the art that makes can stand beside, or even surpass, the work that comes out of chaos. “There’s this word I wrote down in my sketchbook in 2011,” he tells me. “‘Kaizen’—it’s Japanese for continuous improvement. This has been my guiding principle since I started doing art.”
Pagahon," oil on canvas, 2011, from the Louie and Liza Bate collection
“I think it also helps that we lived on a farm,” says
“We were sort of not into that from the get-go,” she continues. “And even when the auction houses came to us, that was not the goal… When you enter your studio, you’re not thinking of money. That will change the entire ball
“Money will change everything. As it is, we’re comfortable. We’re okay,” she says. “As it is, we can survive, we can paint so when you enter our studio, it’s not, how much is this? Our mindset was a great body of work,” she says.
“I know what talent is, how to nurture that kind of talent— you can’t treat it like an everyday thing that he can paint,” she says. “He can paint great things. That’s the difference
“It requires you to really kind of have to stop your life for a little bit, to nurture it. Like with my brothers, my mom
The retrospectives in 2018 are about the progression and evolution of the artist Elmer Borlongan’s body of work and also about Elmer Borlongan, his father’s son, who was able to live the artist’s life his father had relegated to his Sundays. But in ways he’s told us and ways we’ll never know, the retrospectives are also a tribute to love and Plet Bolipata, an artist in her own right but also a woman who took a step back at certain points to make sure her partner’s genius would flourish.
Elmer says in their first year of marriage, he and
*This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Town&Country.