In 2023, when you look in the mirror, what do you see? Are you sanguine? Or is the fatigue from recent happenstance heavy on your face? Are the marks of exhaustion evident? Has tragedy dug its claws into your cheeks? What’s reflected in your eyes?

In the era of the endlessly retouched digital photograph, the faces of others can be tricky to read.  Even our own faces have become estranged from us. Thus curator Anne Novado of Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.) has asked for something a little more ruminative than a quick snapshot. She’s solicited paintings, drawings, and sculptures from artists engaged in the act of auto-representation. Cheekily, she’s dubbed the show “Slow Selfie.” That’s where the mirth stops.  

“Feeling Blue” by Loura van der Meule

Thirty thoughtful self-portraits hang in this exhibition, and not one of these faces bears a grin. A few wear tight, teasing Mona Lisa-style upturns of the corners of their closed mouths, but most of them sport grim, guarded expressions that suggest that their portraitists are, in the words of Loura van der Meule, “Feeling Blue.” That’s when they’re showing their faces at all.

Many of these artists have chosen to represent themselves with their faces obscured, covered by their hands in an expression of shyness that hints at anguish, as in Nancy Jenner’s oil painting on paper “Double Selfie 22,” or standing with backs turned to the camera, as Ileana Rincón-Cañas does in her stark photograph “I Seek For and It Catches Me,” or sliced up by the frame, like Scott Sager’s furtive “On My Side?,” in which the subject peeks a suspicious and heavy lidded eye at us from the side of the acrylic painting.  He could be hiding behind a tree, spying at us, prepared to slink away at the slightest provocation.

“Eye To I” by Hui Tan

These are, nevertheless, self-portraits in the old-fashioned sense. No matter how abstract the artists in “Slow Selfie” get, a Dutch Master would still recognize them for what they're doing, and maybe even what they’re probing. They’re engaged in an act of psychological examination, and they’re fascinated by the human face as a register for profound and complicated emotional states. Michael Scherb strips away flesh and bone from his surreal oil-painted image of his face, leaving only a thin oval of lips and a pair of google eyes dangling from pink viscera. In a startling mixed-media piece called “2021 Will Be My Breakout Year,” Copie Rodriguez stares out fiercely from behind a surgical mask torn at the nose and lips.  This luchador has wrestled the pandemic to a grueling draw.  In the large oil painting “Now Am I,” Laura Alexander glares through a makeup mask of bone-white, slathered-on foundation and thick, lurid lipstick. These are not photorealistic artworks, but they’re absolutely honest: they bear the unmistakable impression of a time on earth that has been nothing to smile about.

“2021 Will Be My Breakout Year” by Copie Rodriguez

There’s a suggestion throughout the show that misfortune has had a withering effect on identity, and that hardship has pared back our personalities to the root. Stephen Wuensch’s painfully sad “18,000 Day Self-Portrait” is a triptych tracing the devolution of a character from a circumspect but hopeful youth to a grizzled, harried middle-aged man to a blank white sheet.  He’s rendered this all in pencil, which underscores the subject’s erasability. Ellen Mitchell is a sliver amidst a great grey sea in “Standing in the Ocean Waves;” Mavourneen Dooley is shrouded and fading to dreamlike white in her “My Body at Age 23 Preserved in Wax Paper” series; Lynne Marie Rosenberg is a punched-out silhouette in a torrent of scribbled words in ballpoint ink in a lined notebook.  Stop and read the paragraph around the negative space that defines her body, and you’ll find a tirade directed at a man intent on wresting her sexual experience away from her.  That she’s chosen to represent herself as a blank cutout suggests that he’s partially succeeded.

“Studio Self-Portrait” by Katerina Lanfranco

No wonder, then, that these sitters are so defensive. They glare back at their portraitists with looks of challenge and incredulity, as if the painters are stealing something from them. That they themselves are those portraitists only makes matters worse. Ian King emphasizes his heavy-lidded eyes in his scathing “Self Portrait With Doubt,” an amalgam of acrylic and gouache on Bristol board. Bill Rood enlists his pet to amplify his wariness in the brittle brush-pen drawing “With Cat.” Laura Lou Levy tells us that “My Face Has Changed” in a beautifully-rendered, starkly confessional pencil sketch; Katerina Lanfranco encircles herself in a gilded frame like a Victorian grandee, but her complex expression is freighted with modern paranoia. Then there’s “Six Decades, And a View” by the ever-lyrical Jennifer Krause Chapeau, a study of urban solitude — and maybe fading memory — in which cloudy beige paint encroaches on the besieged subject from the corners of the frame.

On Kawara, or P.E. Pinkman, could tell us: we log our lives to preserve ourselves, and to remind ourselves in difficult times that we are still here. The artists taking these slow selfies are determined to get this story right, even if they aren’t comfortable with all of the details. Heartbreaking as it is, this show represents a step out of the darkness: in the depths of the lockdown period, Jersey City artists weren’t painting human beings at all. Our bodies had become so abject — such battlegrounds for invisible forces — that we turned to nature studies, depopulated landscapes, and pure abstraction. Yes, the body is fragile, and often quite terrible; yes, the face is a betrayer of fearsome inner states that quicker selfies cover up. Yes, corporeality is inconvenient. But as recent experience has taught us, we’re all we’ve got.

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Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...