Johnny Cohen has been named the second director of Mercer University‘s McEachern Art Center (The MAC). A Macon native, Cohen earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia and received his Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from Savannah College of Art and Design. His work reflects on consumer and shopping culture using colorful 3D displays. The Den recently sat down with Cohen to discuss his artistic philosophy, his plans for the MAC and his favorite parts of the local landscape.
How did you come to your career as an artist and curator?
From a very young age, I always knew that I had to do something creative, whether it be aspirations of becoming the next Andy Warhol or being cast one day as a tap dancer on Broadway. As a Maconite, I was heavily involved in the art community as both a fine artist and performer in local theater organizations. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 2018 with a degree in advertising, I landed a job as a visual display artist dressing windows and merchandising product on the retail sales floor. I was transforming a space to tell a story, whether it be a particular season or highlighting a specific store product. This experience laid the foundation toward my passion for installation and spatial design. I started to understand the impact of how a well-designed space can truly move people. During my MFA studies, I installed and curated my first gallery show with my body of work.
My work revolves around the feeling of nostalgia, pulling elements of colors and shapes into a space where people can reflect on their own feelings from the past. I knew that exhibitions aren’t mere works sitting on a white wall highlighting an artist’s technique and process. Instead, curation is an act of transformation. It’s about narrating the story of an artist through an immersive, visually powerful environment.
What types of artists inspire you? Do you have any mentors who have shaped your point of view?
My biggest inspirations are artists who explore themes of our consumerism and question the meaning of art in their work. I love how Andy Warhol takes images of our culture such as the Campbell’s soup can and identifies these icons as fine art through his own method of silk screen printing.
I also appreciate Marcel Duchamp and Jessica Stockholder, who take objects of everyday life as their primary materials. A bike wheel and a plastic laundry basket have just as much potential to be a piece of fine art as a famous painting on display at the Met. My biggest mentor to this day is Krista Grecco, an Atlanta-based sculptor, former professor and colleague. She taught me how to brand myself, connect with creatives and find a place in an art community.
What brought you to Mercer? As a sculptor, do you have a favorite feature on campus or in the Macon area yet?
After working as a foundations professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, I had the urge to invest more time in curation. I saw this new opportunity at Mercer as a place for me to continue growing as an art educator. Since I was a kid, I have always loved the vast amounts of public art in downtown Macon and enjoyed going through the exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. To this day, my favorite sculpture is the “Gesturing Woman” sculpture by Viola Frey in the permanent collection at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. The colors and cartoon-like qualities bring back those memories of me loving art as a kid in Macon.
You grew up in Macon. What makes you want to return now?
Macon is where my roots are. If not for Macon, I would have never discovered my passion for art and experienced all the moments that made me the person who I am today. Macon is evolving, and I want to be a part of that growth that the city is currently experiencing. The community is like a family to me, and I want to be give back to all the wonderful things this community has given to me the last 27 years.
Are there any exhibitions coming up this year that you’re excited to tell our audience about?
I am excited to share some wonderful exhibitions coming to the MAC for the 2023-2024 calendar. We will be hosting a SCAD grad, Gretchen Wagner, in the fall. She is a screen printer that heavily focuses on color relationships. We will also host two Muscogee artists during the Fire Starter Festival in September as the Ocmulgee Mounds are in the works of becoming Georgia’s first national park. In the spring of 2024, we are excited to launch our very first Fluxus exhibit and festival, including works by renowned artist John Cage.
What parts of the contemporary art scene most interest you right now?
I am interested in nontraditional forms of art, including new forms of media since the pandemic. I am interested in following these trends as we continue to evolve in the arts. I also value collaboration. Artists are continuing to work together to promote social causes and gain a voice in the community.
What’s a fun fact about your interests outside of work?
Outside of work, I am continuing to cultivate my own practice as an artist. I have ventured into making graphic collages and have dipped my toes into furniture making. I also enjoy spending time with my two furry pals, Finn and Fitz. Finn is my minature goldendoodle and Fitz is my cat. They are truly the ones who get me going the moment I wake up in the morning, and I am excited to have Finn as the new studio pup at the MAC.