Why Borlongan is head & shoulders above the rest

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Why Borlongan is head & shoulders above the rest
Elmer Borlongan (second from left) with Elena Coyiuto, Plet Bolipata Borlongan and Stephanie Coyiuto Tay.

From the artist’s beating heart, to paper, to canvas to bronze — that’s the trajectory taken by Elmer Borlongan’s latest sculpture, Shoulder Wars, which depicts two men in swimming trunks engaged in a seemingly playful yet competitive battle, perched on the shoulders of friends submerged in water. The last one standing, or shall I say, sitting, wins the war.

Five versions of this arresting yet whimsical artwork stood head and shoulders above the rest in an exhibit organized by renowned interior designer Jonathan Matti at Vetted, at 126 Mile Long Arcade, Makati.

This playful yet competitive vignette of two men wrestling for dominance while sitting on the shoulders of two other figures in chest-deep waters first came to life as a pen-and-ink sketch on paper, then reemerged as oil on canvas in 2015. Initially titled Chicken Wars,  it was later renamed Shoulder Wars and displayed at the Alliance Française in an exhibition centered on the theme of water. The artwork eventually became part of the collection of landscape consultant and bonsai proponent Roberto Gopiao.

‘Shoulder Wars’ by Elmer Borlongan.

In 2018, Gopiao approached Borlongan and proposed translating Shoulder Wars into a piece of sculpture. Through a contact in Xiamen, China, a foundry specializing in bronze casting was enlisted for the project. Borlongan oversaw the creation of a maquette, a miniature clay model that served as a blueprint for the final seven-ft. sculpture. The completed clay model was then shipped to China for casting. The resulting trio of bronze sculptures now graces three distinct locations: Gopiao’s serene pond in his getaway in Lucban, Quezon; the garden surrounding Borlongan’s studio in San Antonio, Zambales; and soon, a spot in the artist’s own pond, bringing the fun water play of Shoulder Wars full circle.

Borlongan, celebrated for his evocative expressionist style, drew inspiration for Shoulder Wars from cherished memories of childhood summers, filled with laughter and lighthearted competition. During summer breaks, lads would engage in this tussle on the beach or pool, displaying not only the importance of brawn but also the value of having allies.

“Elmer Borlongan’s work has always captured the essence of Filipino culture with a unique blend of nostalgia and modernity. This exhibit is a testament to his ability to evoke deep emotions through both painting and sculpture,” Jonathan Matti, known for his sophisticated and elegant design style, says.

Designer Jonathan Matti, new Cultural Center of the Philippines president Kaye Tinga and daughter Kerry.

Borlongan is a city-turned-country boy. Born in Manila, he now calls Zambales home. But the works that gained him renown depict struggles of the common man in the urban jungle. At the University of the Philippines, he was associated with social realism, a movement that utilized visual art as a critique of society. His social realist phase, which began in the late ’80s, transitioned towards a softer approach in the early ’90s. Eventually, Borlongan found himself drawn to figurative expressionism, where the artist’s emotional response to a subject takes precedence over a purely objective representation of reality. His shift was influenced by his participation in the Salingpusa art group.

“We were searching for directions on what to paint,” Borlongan recalls. “We were city boys. We painted our environment.”

For Borlongan, technical virtuosity and photographic realism aren’t the defining factors of meaningful artwork.

“My approach is how to interpret your subject matter from your heart,” he explains. This focus on interpretation is evident in his signature style “characterized by exaggerated figures to evoke heightened emotion.”

Borlongan’s ‘wrestlers’ at Vetted, Mile-Long Arcade, Makati last week.

His works are unique, and are like pebbles in a pond. They create ripples.

Now, Borlongan’s amateur wrestlers have seemingly jumped from the canvas to the floor. Still scuffling, they are now three-dimensional. This gives the viewer the opportunity to view the sculpture from all angles and to enter their worlds without the background given in the painting.

Where are they? If not by the sea, then where?

“I leave it up to the viewers to make their own interpretation on what the two figures represent. If you situate it in current events, it could be the Philippines and China competing for territories in the West Philippine Sea,” Borlongan muses.

The exhibit opened shortly before the change of leadership in the Senate, where each of the two protagonists were borne on the shoulders of their supporters. As it is in life — our victories are enabled by the people who carry us on their shoulders.

Shoulder Wars could be anything. Anyone. But what is apparent is the determination on the faces of the “wrestlers.” Now, you don’t have to sit on anyone’s shoulder to see that. *


You may e-mail me at [email protected]. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.

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