After decades of absence from his alma mater, the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, Elmer Borlongan returned on Aug. 10 to launch his exhibition entitled “Denizens” at the UP Corredor Gallery.
Like a long-lost son eager to reunite with his family, he came up with a surprise from his long sojourn, showing 11 large-scale oil paintings that had never been exhibited in mainstream galleries elsewhere.
Borlongan’s oeuvres are offshoots of his family tour of different parts of the world.
It seems to have not been a leisurely tour. He seems to have been keenly observing the character and behavior of people they met on the streets and in buildings abroad.
To untrained eyes, these views might look good for just casual sightseeing, but to an observant artist, they are a source of inspiration for one’s creative endeavor.
A Pinoy stranger in foreign lands observing their denizens and their surroundings—the spaces, the colors, and the structures—this is how the artist as an ethnographer processes his creative imagination.
Borlongan gives a nuanced depiction of his subjects, showing their individuality and uniqueness through their distinct behavior and expressions.
A bald figure with an expressive big eye, staring with disfigured bodily movements—Borlongan depicts this iconic figure with soft color values and a smoothness of rendering.
This iconic figure would come into play in different characters (he even hinted that it might be him personifying others), but the technique and style of rendering are kept distinctly Borlongan.
In this exhibit, the iconic figure can be viewed in its relations with its environ or ecology.
Man, space, and the structure—these are the elements that interplay in this exhibit.
Borlongan’s handling of visual spaces and the structures behind the iconic figures are noticeable in most of his paintings.
One of his paintings, entitled “Millennium Bridge,” shows a brown man, on the foreground, holding his scarf. In an upbeat mood, he approaches the Millennium Bridge where people have converged for a walk towards St. Paul’s Cathedral in a golden reflection of the sunset in the background, against bluish gray, cool atmosphere.
In many European countries, churches and cathedrals serve not only places for prayer but also as landmarks where tourists can appreciate the wonders of the architecture and intricate designs adorning their walls.
In this painting, the structures and the human figure complement the modern Millennium Bridge and the classical cathedral structures—and the basis for the design of the Vitruvian man of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Borlongan’s “Lost in Gansevoort” painting shows a cyclist, apparently lost, standing with his bicycle behind a tangerine-colored structure where two streets converge.
Piet Mondrian’s painting on the shirt of the cyclist (artist) is appropriately blended behind the brilliant tangerine walls.
Interestingly, Mondrian is famous for his traffic series, which reflects the busy streets of New York. Borlongan’s bicycle must be a symbolic solution to that problem.
Perhaps, the cyclist, who seems lost in this painting, represents a good traveler who, according to Lao Tzu, has no fixed plans as he is not really intent on arriving.
Gansevoort is famous not only for meatpacking. It is also home to many artists who live in cheap studios that were once big warehouses and have been transformed into an art community. Gansevoort is also where you can find an extension of the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art.
Borlongan’s “Brooklyn is in the Heart” portrays a man in the foreground with a blank stare behind a structure of the Brooklyn Bridge. A golden color reflection of the golden gray sky is prominent in the painting. The structure, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan, is the first steel-wire suspension bridge in New York.
The cables look like parts of a web that trapped the man inside the bridge.
New York is a place where everything and anything would make a lasting recall from one’s heart and mind.
One has to adapt to the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism in order to survive.
Competition among workers, like worker’s alienation from one’s act of labor, alienation from one’s produce, and alienation from other human beings is how Marx observed the capitalist mode of production.
The work “Oblivion” shows a man going up a winding staircase, suggesting a perpetual journey, perhaps of survival.
Many people dream of going to advanced capitalist countries, like the United States, only to be entangled in a web of alienation and capitalist exploitation.
In another painting, entitled “Westminster Busker,” Borlongan captured a moment of serenity while playing his accordion with his dog before him sitting under a rag.
Buskers are regular street performers in many big cities in the world like New York City. They perform in crowded tourist areas. Perhaps those buskers have their own stories to tell regarding their circumstances.
Rendered in sienna and umber pigments, the gated background with a granite wall suggests a big establishment, the Westminster Cathedral which stands in contrast to the busker.
Borlongan explores iconic sites in many big cities—like the street vendors in his “Miner’s Gate Food Cart” in New York where they sell hotdogs and sodas.
You’re missing a lot if you have not eaten hotdogs in the main streets of New York. The figure in the background with a steady intent look at the customers is ready to attend to their orders.
Another painting, entitled “New Fortune Cookie,” depicts a Chinese restaurant in New York, with iconic hanging roasted ducks and pork displayed in a glass window, behind which where kitchen staff prepares food for their customers.
The loud red color on the wall signifies happiness, good fortune, and protection against bad luck. The main event after savoring sumptuous Peking duck in Chinese restaurants, you will be given a cookie that tells your fortune for the day.
Borlongan gives us glimpses into the life of denizens who make up a significant part of the population in many advanced countries.
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