This week Associate Professor of the History of Art and Art History Undergraduate Chair Julie Davis sits down with Street and talks about getting Zen, reincarnated tacos and why Philadelphia is a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Street: The papers are graded, the phones aren’t ringing and the conditions are right for a perfect lazy weekend. What do you do? Where do you go?

Professor Davis: Wow, I haven’t had a weekend like that in years. I’d spend one day here in Philadelphia, taking a bike ride up the Schuylkill path, shopping at the Reading Terminal Market and having a barbeque at home with friends. The second day I’d probably go look for stuff for my old house — to the architectural antique places here in town and farther afield — and come back in time for dinner at some place in University City, like Rx or the Vietnam Cafe.

Street: From the Edo period to Murakami, Japanese art doesn’t leave much to be desired. However, as undergraduate chair of the art history department, you have access to incredible thinkers in several art historical fields. Who’s your favorite artist? What is your favorite artwork in your own field and outside of your own field?

J.D.: Even after spending so many years thinking and writing about Kitagawa Utamaro, he’s still my favorite Japanese artist, and my favorite work by him is the “Lovers” from the Utamakura (The Pillow Book) from 1788. There are too many choices outside my field, but I’d rank Guo Xi’s “Early Spring” (1072), Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), Manet’s “Bar at the Folies–Bergère” (1882), Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors,” “Even” (The Large Glass) (1915–1923), and just about anything by Rothko in my list of favorites.

Street: We have suspended the laws of time and space and you have three hours to sit down for lunch with any artist/artistic figure in history. Who is your guest and where are you eating?

J.D.: There are two people I’d love to meet: Katsushika Hokusai and Ozu Yasujirô. Hokusai was the artist that made the image of “the Great Wave off Kanagawa” for The Thirty–Six Views of Mount Fuji — he knew absolutely everyone at that time and he could answer all the questions I have about nineteenth–century Japan. Hokusai loved the sights and sounds of urban life, so I’d take him to my favorite food truck, the Taco Trailer in South Philly, and then to the Nanzhou Noodle House in Chinatown, and finally we’d wander around the Italian Market. Ozu was the twentieth–century director who made films such as Tokyo Story and, since he liked sushi and sake, I’d take him to Zama, just off Rittenhouse Square, or maybe I’d see if he’d be up for the tasting menu at Amada.

S: If you were an undergrad all over again, what Art History classes would be on your wishlist for the Spring Semester ?

J.D.: There are so many great offerings in the spring in our department. I wish I could take them all! If I could take as many as five, I’d sign up for: ARTH 287, Contemporary Art with Kaja Silverman; ARTH 282, Modern Architecture II with David Brownlee; ARTH 102, Renaissance to Modern with Larry Silver and André Dombrowski; ARTH 209, Contemporary African Art with Diala Touré; and ARTH 224, Greek Architecture and Urbanism, with Lothar Haselberger.

Street: What’s your favorite public art piece in the city?

J.D: The Shôfûsô, the Japanese House and Garden, in Fairmount Park! It’s modeled on a seventeenth–century building, set into a jewelbox of a garden, and with magnificent new painted sliding doors by the Japanese contemporary artist, Hiroshi Senju.

Street: What is your favorite museum?

J.D.: What’s not to love about the Philadelphia Museum of Art? They have a world–class collection and smart curators that put things together in innovative ways. The period rooms, like the Chinese temple and the Japanese teahouse, make us think about the ways works of art were placed into rooms — we really get to see how things were used in context there. The PMA ranks up there with my favorite museums in the world — the Tokyo National Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and every time I go, I think, we’re so lucky.

Street: You are Penn’s foremost expert on Japanese art. Where’s your favorite place in the city to get Zen?

J.D.: Mu! (That’s a Zen answer, meaning “nothingness.”) But more seriously, to find serenity, I seek quiet — in my mind, in nature, and in life — and in the sudden realization that emerges in surprise, in laughter and in contemplation. It’s everywhere. And nowhere.

Street: What makes Philadelphia a great city for artists and art lovers?

J.D.: Philadelphia has a rich and diverse array of museums, galleries, and other spaces where we can encounter great works and be challenged to think critically about how artists have represented the human experience. Every time I go to one of the great museums we have here — like the PMA, PAFA, the Barnes and the Penn Museum — I am amazed by the incredible quality of the works of art on display in the permanent collection and in the special exhibitions (The Silk Road show at the Penn Museum is going to be fantastic!). The ICA and the contemporary galleries in town truly challenge me to think beyond my conceptions of what it means to make art. Here on campus we are also lucky to have the Arthur Ross Gallery, with a terrific roster of exhibitions (and here, I’m going to give a shout–out to the contemporary Chinese art show coming in the spring!). And the Mural Arts program is a great thing for our city and our community — I was lucky enough to help paint one a few years ago and it made me really appreciate how much this program makes the city a visually exciting place with first–rate public art. I also appreciate Philadelphia’s architecture, from historic houses like Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park to modern buildings like the PSFS tower, and walking around Philadelphia neighborhoods is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the art of the city.

Feeling Professor Davis’ serious penchant for all things Japan? Check out her Spring Semester course, ARTH 300: Early Modern Court Cultures.