Much as one might do during a master magician’s dazzling performance, it’s tempting to spend the full length of Young Rival’s new video trying to puzzle out how artist James Kuhn’s face paintings are created. Doing so, however, would rob the viewer of the blunt-force trauma of wonder that comes from watching the man’s work, which is jaw-dropping—often literally so, by necessity.
The paintings Kuhn creates go beyond the realm of characterization, straight into optical illusion. While his eyes often double as those of whatever person or creature is painted on his face—and in some cases each eye belongs to a separate person—the surrounding area is a mutable blank canvas. His mouth may be used, memorably, to stand in for a monkey’s butt or a fetus’ fingers, and his wiggling cheeks might serve to make the funhouse mirror body of some character dance. Not every part of his face is as functional, though. "A nose won’t move," Kuhn says, "so I have to use it or hide it to achieve my goal."
Canadian band Young Rival found Kuhn’s work through a Reddit post showing off the artist’s daily project. He’d begun painting a new face every day and documenting it on his Flickr stream. The band was blown away, and emailed him about doing a video. Rather than invent a context for Kuhn to play into, they decided to just get out of the way and showcase the artist lip synching their song "Two Reasons" using some of the faces he was creating that month, and a couple of old favorites.
"Once I decide on a concept, I start to draw and search the Internet for visual aids to inspire me," Kuhn says. "The painted cardboard pieces that I tape to my head are often made the night before, and my faces usually take about an hour to paint, give or take." He adds, "I enjoy face painting because the face never changes, so I must think around it and come up with creative solutions to reach my concepts."
Have a look at some of the artist’s most inventive face paintings in the slide show above.