Elmer Borlongan’s Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary

Elmer Borlongan’s mid-career retrospective held on his 50th birthday at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila establishes him as the essential post-EDSA artist: an artist painting in the veristic sociocritical vein of the 90s, but who, with the downfall of the Marcoses, finds himself with no one to rebel against so he turns to a kind of mellow social realism. The works, which span the years 1994 to 2018, indicate that his oeuvre  has indeed become worthy of the term, “Borlonganesque,” a critical shorthand for a form of social realism that has become formulaic. At the same time, the term concedes that his work has become something of a benchmark in the art scene, which begs the question: is his social realism driven less by social issues than by the art market?

Borlongan has evolved a reputation as a proletarian artist who paints in the Expressionist style. His brand of social realism has a subtle activism, but what political statements he is making in his paintings have largely remained opaque. However, the post-EDSA era has come to celebrate the eclectic mutability of the artist. He is lionized as something of a historical epigone, and it is in this development that Borlongan is celebrated: not as an adept master of styles but as a narrow conformist to the cliches of social realism.

Does it mean, then, that we need to retouch the prosaic image of  Borlongan – perhaps to darken his aura, in order to make the closet activist shine all the more? Did the erstwhile radical activist who once confessed to being clueless on what to do as an artist turn to painting the ugly and the deformed to produce poverty porn? Or are his works a chief example of the memento pauper tradition in Philippine art? Is it protest art?

The curators at the Met Museum retrospective seem bent on canonizing Borlongan as a progeny of figurative masters but not necessarily as a Social Realist. The works are presented in such a way that there is only a token mention on the political messaging of the paintings, such as an entire wall given to “Kapit-bisig”, but and there is nothing radical about the presentation or the painting itself. Social Realists would balk at the idea that the subject is ordinary but the artistic rendition is extraordinary. The reverse holds true: the reality in Social Realism is rarely ordinary.

Apparently, this regression became the norm in light of a national art historical perspective allergic with politics that emerged after EDSA 1986.  

The highlight of any good retrospective of a Social Realist would be the radical younger years. Elmer Borlongan’s early career indeed affords glimpses of a nascent radicalism.

He joined Artista ng Bayan (ABAY), an activist art collective, with Mark Justiniani, and served as a graphic artist for various leftist organizations of the National Democratic Front. He eventually decided to drop out of art school after his involvement with these organizations became more intense. Academic training offered no guarantee for anyone going into a career in art, and Borlongan’s decision to drop out was abetted by a quivering appreciation for social-realism against the background of a euphoric uprising. The increasingly reactionary climate of the 1990s saw culture and the arts suffering from serious institutional failure. The stigma of “deodorant of the Marcos regime” apparently stuck, and artists like Borlongan were driven to a corner. They had to reinvent themselves, and many, like Borlongan turned to urban and folk and quasi-religious allegories.

The retrospective should have served to remind us that during and after the period of the EDSA revolution, Borlongan worked on several posters, pamphlets and efffigies; one with a gruesome picture of Ferdinand Marcos as a vile yellow gnome, the personification of corruption. This last piece of ephemera could very well have been the marker for Elmer Borlongan’s entry into the art scene. Some of these works are now in the collection of the Ateneo Art Gallery, but unfortunately, the Met Manila exhibition did not show a single graphic from his early career as a leftist-activist graphic designer.

The modern city is the usual Borlonganesque subject; so much so that even in its treatment of provincial scenes, you sense a deep “city mouse” perspective. In his large-format paintings and his sketches on paper, the artist invites you on a ramble through the nocturnal metropolis. In the selection for the retrospective, he leads us past bunker-shaped concrete blocks in threatening black against a night blue sky, under bridges and train stations through the ecstatic world of nightclubs with their flashes of light, filled with rhythmic and swirling human bodies.

Almost always it is night in the Borlonganesque painting, and even when they are lit up by the light of day, they are bathed in a dirty, pale mist, the same shade of a polluted estero. Like lemurs, the human figures move in this cosmos, anonymously, without any physiognomic distinctness except their baldness and big eyes. The eyes bear within them the narcissistic gaze that sees the world as a reflection of the subject’s existence. This is best illustrated in “Batang EDSA (1982) and “Gabay” (1994), as well as the early painting “Kapit-bisig” (2006), in which the subjects’ eyes powerfully register, and affectively allude to,  the social forces that have occasioned the subject’s oppression.

Borlongan painted mostly tragic protagonists of a grotesque metropolis and ensembles of stereotypical urban figures that are Social Realism’s representative eyewitnesses. The relentlessly factual, and at the same time hallucinatory, social milieu in these paintings comprise the actual veristic core of an immense provocative body of work.

In the pictorial works, the representation of the body seems to trigger the kind of music that Borlongan’s paintings and drawings vaguely suggest. The facial expression disguises rather than reveals the suffering of his subjects, as in a painting of a child Sampaguita vendor in “Batang EDSA.” The humanoid faces of his stock figures are embodiments of certain attitudes rather than individualities, but with strongly accentuated eyes.

Borlongan’s visual language is uncomplicated, effective, sometimes shrill and eruptive. To a certain extent, it forms the optical equivalent of rock and punk music, which he used to play in his younger years as a member of a band. But if, on occasion, the painter cannot avoid the danger of routine, then his paintings stagger between smooth mannerism and a flat “onomatopoeia.” Borlongan is an exponent of a branch of figurative art that he represents with his fellow artists Emmanuel Garibay and Mark Justiniani and the rest of the Salingpusa group, whose works almost ritually allude to and quote one another.

Elmer Borlongan expresses in his pictures and drawings the most immediate sensations which moves large crowds of museum-goers. In this respect, his pictures are like that of a photojournalist, but in the flood of pictures, painting seems to hold more of our attention. There are always individual works that make us forget the saturation of our world by images because they appeal to us with a suggestive exclusivity. It is in these moments that Elmer Borlongan succeeds in such works, which – even if barely shown in public – become ‘icons of the present’, such as ‘Batang EDSA’, ‘Mobile Record Shop’,  and ‘Walang Iwanan’ which programmatically present us with the ‘Zeitgeist’ painting

What elevates the painting to the level of Zeitgeist is the homology between artistic motive and painterly practice. An autoreflexive moment comes into play that blends music and painting, artistic production and a sense of vitality. The paintings in question are charged with the energy of their subject, characterizing it, while at the same time the reflection on the painting process exceeds the actual occasion—despite his somewhat anemic repertoire of images.

Borlongan’s image panoramas are misunderstood as illustrations of today’s subcultural scene. Whoever looks at them in that way will certainly be shortchanged. One, however, would be overthinking if one appends an allegorical interpretation. While it is possible to read Borlongan’s pictures as works that capture the ‘Zeitgeist’, it would be too much of a stretch to suggest that they are allegories of our present moment, a “summing up” of the present that elicits hermeneutic completion.

Thus, the theorist brings the cosmology of the artist absolutely to the present. Borlongan is no longer a flâneur who, like Baudelaire during the second half of the 20th century, strolls the city from a detached perspective, reading the big city as though it were a text  about the human condition. Neither is he a gritty painter that sees the city as deranged as he is from the other side; Rather, he is someone who literally drowns in its cultural fringes, in hell-holes, where the contradictions and paradoxes collide harder than anywhere else. Perpetrators and victims become one.

In his catalog essay for the retrospective, the historian and now curator, Ambeth Ocampo points to a visceral reality in Borlongan’s painterly oeuvre. Symbols of a personal desire for expression such as the guitar are in the opinion of Ocampo, “against the anonymous brutality of modern city architecture”. Inhabitants of the Borlonganesque city seem to be petrified by the intimidating urban facades of an impersonal and instrumentalized social reality, as if confronted by the sight of Medusa’s gaze. This encounter is violent.

This is the totalitarian violence that the viewer shares with the world presented in the paintings; a moment in which our own inability to connect the painting with reality actualizes our complicity with the city’s structural violence. This is also manifested in the concrete boxes of Manila’s malls and apartment blocks and in protest sites of Mendiola which in its claustrophobic scale, elevates the desire for personal expression to an explosive register.

In Social Realism, society flows through the figures and shapes their expressivity. Maybe this expression is not personal, not even natural – in psychobiological terms – it is nonetheless a reflex of social coercion that works through painting primarily as a personal expression. And yet, to fully become Social Realism, this personal expression must transform into social expression, a demonstration of the total dominance of the society over the individual – its power gives the feeling, takes possession of the Borlonganesque body, and leaves nothing but a vestige of personal identity.

In fact, the Borlonganesque character rarely manifests agency, and is simply possessed by society in its most seductive and overwhelming form. In this perspective, the artistic work merely becomes a mosaic of motifs that merges unexpectedly in the painter’s milieu. Perhaps this is the ordinariness in which the painter mistakenly perceives his world. Far from extraordinary are the heads that break the cityscape by the violence of their growth, the singers and dancers, the vagabonds, who seem to have been catapulted into the scene without warning. How exactly is his gaze extraordinary when he has even restrained the mirror of social realism?

In Borlongan’s lightweight social realism, we cannot determine whether painting takes a step beyond the status quo or simply falls into the traditionalist recourse to the tried and tested. Where the painter avoids the pitfalls of routine, he succeeds by limiting himself to the most elementary repertoire of expressive figuration but still barely articulating the moving metaphors of the contemporary condition.

The exhibition Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary ran from January 22 until March 28, 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.

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