Photograph by Felix Brüggemann
Since opening his first gallery, in San Francisco, in 2002, Javier Peres has built a reputation as a champion of cutting-edge artists. Now he’s based in Berlin, where he opened a gallery in 2005, when the city was just beginning to establish itself as the go-to destination for young artists from Europe and beyond. The latest incarnation of Peres Projects occupies an expansive space in one of the monumental postwar buildings on the historic Karl-Marx-Allee, near the city center. Here, over the past decade, Peres, 45, has shown the work of Blair Thurman, Dan Colen, and Alex Israel, among others. The day we meet, the gallery walls have been given over to a series of cartoonlike paintings by Austin Lee, a young American who Peres tells me is “at the forefront of artists who are trying to paint the digital world.”
From the beginning, Peres’s instinct for the new and edgy has proven visionary. “I was the first international gallery to open in Berlin,” he says. “Back then, people in the art world thought I was crazy, but I had a disproportionate amount of European clients, like Charles Saatchi in London and Dakis Joannou in Athens, who were adding to their collections with work I was exhibiting. Plus, I like cold weather. Even though I come from a warm climate, I do everything I can to stay away from the sun. I like the gray, the snow, and the cold, so Berlin was perfect for me.”
Peres was born in Cuba, but left in 1981, at age 8, when his family went into exile in Venezuela before settling in Los Angeles. The family was politically active against the government, he says, “so it has proven very challenging for me to go back. I grew up in a small town to the west of Havana, but my memories are quite fragmented. My grandparents collected Spanish and Latin American art, and a museum in Cuba has pieces from my family’s collection. I’m a nerd. I enjoyed school. I enjoyed words and learning. I was really happy in museums as a kid. I have three brothers, but I am the only one interested in art.”
In person, Peres is ebullient and entertaining, his sometimes irreverent opinions on the contemporary art world—“There’s a part of me that finds collecting stupid. It is so absurd, it can take the fun out of everything”—tempered by a deep knowledge of premodern African art, his other great passion. “Javier is pure raw energy coupled with vast historical knowledge,” says Donna Huanca, a Bolivian-American artist represented by him, whose work is primarily performance-based. “That combination makes him a brilliant ally.”
Peres started his own collection as a teenager, when he was drawn to outsider art. His passion continued in San Francisco, where he began studying premodern African art while he was in law school and working for an immigration firm that represented minorities fleeing persecution in their native countries and “people no one else would touch,” he says, such as those accused of weapons trafficking and espionage, as well as deposed dictators who “wanted to live in the U.S. because their kids were going to Georgetown or Harvard.” Later, he became a corporate immigration attorney and began collecting outsider art again, mostly works on paper that he bought from the people with disabilities who made them at the “incredible centers” he visited in his spare time. Finally, he made the leap and became a gallerist. He often discovers talents at college shows or through the artists already in his stable. “I met Beth Letain through Brent Wadden, who used to work as an art handler for us. I’ve known Donna Huanca since she was a student in Frankfurt; we always kept in touch, probably because we are both Latin Americans living in Berlin.”
Peres admits that his commitment to nurturing younger artists is not without its drawbacks. “It can be tough. I often take a lot of risks, do all the legwork, and then a bigger gallery comes along and says, ‘Thank you for all your work, Mr. Peres, we’ll take over now.’ I’m flattered in a way. It means that some important gallery thinks that what I am doing is good.” He seems remarkably philosophical, even upbeat, in the face of the ruthless Darwinian dynamic that drives the market. “What can you do?” he says, smiling. “If a more established gallery has a huge reach and is linked to all the big museums, they don’t have the same pressure as I do. Some galleries are so backed, they can show air. I have to show results.”
Peres describes himself as an obsessive. He’s been collecting premodern African art—he hates the word “tribal”—for almost two decades, with sporadic breaks, but renewed his passion six years ago when, as he puts it, he got sober. “When I first had the gallery in San Francisco, the whole partying thing came out. I was chasing something else. If I had one drink, it would escalate quickly.” He now prefers to stay at home. But is collecting art also an addiction, albeit a more healthy one? “Collecting is a chase, certainly,” he says, “and African art triggers a different part of my brain that nothing else has ever been able to satisfy. I know so much about so many cultural groups, different periods, things that most people have no reason to know. I’m interested in it financially, but also intellectually. That’s a very different M.O. to addiction.”
Across the city, in his expansive, white-walled modernist apartment in the Schöneberg district, striking contemporary works share space with much older pieces from his collection of classic African pieces. “I’m a little unusual in the African-art collecting arena in that I’m considered very young—I’ve only been collecting for about 18 years,” he says, without a hint of irony. His initial interest was in Egyptian art, but all that remains of that period is a life-size, transparent plastic human figure with a dog head that stands sentinel by a window, facing a large wood-and-cloth sculpture by an Igbo artist from Nigeria. The room is an exercise in dramatic contrasts: In one corner, a readymade of a window grille by the young African-American artist Diamond Stingily is fixed to the wall above three early-20th-century helmet masks from Sierra Leone. In another, a minimalist slate-gray canvas by Blair Thurman is paired with an elegant carving created by an unknown artist from the Fang people of equatorial Africa. “It’s just the way I like to live,” Peres says, shrugging.
Peres’s partner, Benoît Wolfrom, will soon open his own gallery in Berlin focused on functional design. “It will be stuff like this,” says Peres, pointing to the long table in the center of the dining room. Made from carved Styrofoam coated in shiny black latex, it was commissioned as a one-off from the British designer Max Lamb, who also sculpted the 12 individually mismatched chairs that flank it. Described by Peres as “a bit Fred Flintstone,” they evince a heavy solidity, but are, in fact, hollow and as light as paper. Peres owns other chairs by Lamb, one marble, the others metal.
Central to his African collection is a squat wooden figurative sculpture made by an unknown artist of the Kaka people of Cameroon. Covered in what Peres calls “a sacrificial patina” of clay, ash, dried blood, and oils, it stands on its own on a plinth against a white wall in the adjacent room. It is a formidable presence even among the other African pieces on display, and Peres speaks about it almost reverentially. “I first saw it in the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, in 1995, and again in the Guggenheim in New York in 1996. Then I saw it for sale in Paris, at Parcours des Mondes, which is like the Art Basel of the African-art world. For me, buying it was the equivalent of going from collecting BMWs to Ferraris. It’s a masterpiece, one of the most iconic sculptures of that whole group.”
On another shelf, I notice a sculpture of a cup of soft-serve ice cream by the L.A. artist Alex Israel: Minimal, tiny, and crafted in marble and Styrofoam, it has a distinctly Pop art feel. It seems to inhabit a different universe than the African masks and effigies that loom so large, even in this big, bright room. But it, too, speaks volumes about Peres’s paradoxical nature. “There are times when I am alone in the house,” he says, “and I look at my Oliver Laric sculpture or the Huanca work, and I am just so happy that these things exist in my life. I don’t even think or care about anything else.”