Are You What You Make Me depicts the faces of three men who stared at me on the New York City subway when I was a teenager. Growing up in New York City, I routinely encountered catcalling, verbal assault, and incessant staring from men on my commute to and from school. On three separate occasions, when I felt particularly unnerved by a man’s gaze, I surreptitiously took a photograph of him. Though the staring was less confrontational than verbal engagement, it actually felt more violating to me because I felt that my image was being made into something else outside of my control and without acknowledgment of my humanity. I wanted the opportunity to examine these men the way they examined me.
Over the years since I took these photographs, I’ve looked back on them from time to time. Years from the vulnerability of the moments in which I took the photographs, I began to consider whether act of taking these men’s images constituted its own sort of violation. Both the artist and the predator look at a body and make it into something else, whether a work of art or a sexual object. To depict someone in an artwork is to assert some level of power over them: they cannot control the way you use what they are to you.
In undertaking this project, I set out to explore the parallel between the artistic and voyeuristic gazes. By spending many hours looking closely at these men’s faces and recreating their images, I enacted an extreme version of what they did to me: I stared at them for far longer than acceptable given my relation to them and redefined their bodies through how I imagined them. However, I found myself incapable of bringing to my gaze what had so disturbed me about the stares of these men: the feeling of disregarded humanity. Instead, the longer I spent with these faces, the more I felt familiar with them, wondered about who they were, and grappled with the limitations of my impressions of them. In order to demonstrate this dynamic, I gessoed and focused on only one portion of each canvas while leaving the rest sketch-like, directing the viewer’s attention and highlighting the incompleteness and subjectivity of my renderings of these men. I also curated the paintings in such a way that the viewer can be surrounded by them, but also has the opportunity to walk behind them and examine their artifice. Ultimately, these paintings are not portraits of the men I photographed, but portraits of the men I perceived.
Nan Munger’s painting installation creates a psychologically charged space; the viewer is physically surrounded, and confronted up close by faces of three men, each rendered in oil paint in a monumental scale. These paintings are based on snapshots the artist took of men who had incessantly stared at her on the New York City Subway when she was a teenager. Nan’s prolonged process of painting reversed the objectifying male gaze; her unusual portraiture is characterized with unfamiliarity, incompleteness and uncertainty, transforming traumatizing moments of vulnerability into art with enduring power.
Nan Munger is a senior majoring in Art Practice and minoring in Education at Stanford University. Her work generally explores the body, the self, and relationships, often seeking to unsettle the viewer and find nuance in that which disturbs. Though she has worked mainly in painting and drawing, she is also exploring other media including video and performance art and written work. As her time at Stanford draws to a close, Nan looks forward to the opportunity to further develop her artistic practice outside of the structure of classwork and to pursue work that engages her interests in both art and education.