San Francisco-based American artist Klari Reis is best known for her Petri Dish series, a multicolour set of circular blobs created using a blend of media and ground-breaking techniques. The core of Klaris’s approach is the transformation and pigmentation of a UV-resistant plastic, the epoxy polymer, into unique and cutting edge artworks. Klari’s on-going research is visible to the wider audience in her A Daily Dish blog, where she posts a new Petri Dish painting every day. These dishes show the endless and kaleidoscopic possibilities that the polymer can take on in terms of colours and shapes. In addition, the absolutely catchy names of the dishes add an extra value to the whole project (e.g. Unidentified InsectThe Gardner, Citris Squeeze, Cactus FlowerGame Boy).

Klari’s first encounter with the merging of art and science was in London while studying for her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at City and Guilds of London Art School. At that time she was hospitalised, went through a series of clinical tests, and treated with different medications for the Crohn’s Disease. When the doctor showed her how blood samples reacted to different medicines, Klari got immediately intrigued and inspired by cellular reactions. When she returned to San Francisco, with the support of biotech companies based in the Bay Area, she started experimenting with the reaction and composition of cultures of bacteria and cellular structures with mixed materials.

Klari’s latest works have evolved into striking complex structures; the Hypocondria series for example, are groups of 150, 60 or 30 hand painted Petri Dishes of different sizes and colours pinned on the wall, which interact with the surrounding and create magnificent transparencies and shadow effects. Klari’s works have been published in renowned printings such as The New York Times, Wired Magazine, The Financial Times, and Time Out London; and showed worldwide in many public and private collections including Microsoft Research in Cambridge (UK), Morgan Stanley in New York, The Stanford University Medical Center, The Peninsula Shanghai Hotel and Next World Capital’s offices in San Francisco, Paris and Brussels.

After a long wait, due to her hectic rhythms and several work commitments, I’ve had the chance – and of course the pleasure, to ask a few questions to Klari, resulting in the following interview.

Donata Marletta: The visual result of your Petri Projects (e.g. the Hypocondriac and Hypocondria series) reminds me of the Murrine created by Venetian glassmakers, although the techniques you use are far more different and complex. Could you tell us more about the creative and production process involved your works?

Klari Reis: I have painted with epoxy for about 15 years now. The epoxy, plastic I use, is endothermic, meaning it heats up and cools down on its own once mixed. Timing and planning are quite important, I cannot easily take a coffee break or phone call once I have mixed my paint. I wear a protective Tyvek suit and organic vapour mask while I work to protect myself from any possible fumes. These health precautions are not suggested by the manufacturers of the plastic, but a practice I choose because I like working with this fairly new material on a daily basis. I use three variations of epoxy when I paint, each with different drying or working times.

These different working times of the different products allow me to achieve varied effects as a result of controlling the viscosity of the different plastics. Temperature and humidity also play important roles in my painting process. Different effects occur when I put cold plastic into warm plastic or vice versa or highly pigmented plastic into clear epoxy.  These reactions were discovered through experimentation over the years I have worked the material. I would have a hard time explaining or giving someone written or verbal directions on the process without actually showing the process physically.  I love Italian glass. It tends to be much heavier and a little more fragile than the plastic I work with, however, I agree that finished sculptures have a similar look and shine.

Donata Marletta: The blending of light and shadow, colour and textures in the actual installation of your Petri Dishes seems to be a key feature of these works. How important is for you to find the perfect balance between natural and technological elements?

Klari Reis: Curating the installations into groups is just as important for me as creating the actual pieces. I love the challenge of choosing and putting together a finished installation. Having a pleasing balance of colour, transparency and weight are all highly considered when recommending a grouping or completed piece. I sometimes create commissioned work with specific size and colour requirements, but my favourite is to create very multicolour bright installations. 

Donata Marletta: When looking at your artworks the magnificent colour patterns are the first things that catch the viewer’s attention. How do you control the final result? Is there also an element of randomness?

Klari Reis: When I first started working with the material I believe my images were much more minimal and more random.  I was less in control.  Over the years I have a better understanding of what will occur and how to control the materials.  I know what kind of results I will get on a rainy humid day versus an ideal 80 degree Fahrenheit (about 26 degree Celsius) temperature. I definitely cannot control it all, sometimes dyes spread further than I hope or colours become a little more muddled than I imagine, however this element of chance also brings excitement and vulnerability to my practice. I also like to add and try new dyes and pigments on a regular basis to try to achieve new colour combinations or chemical reactions. 

Donata Marletta: I find amazing the way you have transformed your personal experience with a disease into such a bright and colourful artistic production. How did your creative process help you in finding a way to react to a painful and difficult time? 

Klari Reis: I think I was trying to think positively and imaginatively about what was occurring in my body. Art can be extremely therapeutic. I feel extremely fortunate to have found a true passion.

Donata Marletta: In an era where almost everything can be (re)produced endless times, your works are instead surrounded by an aura of authenticity and uniqueness. What are your thoughts on the current media overexposure?

Klari Reis: Thank you so much!  I do work hard to try to keep my work looking different, or just different from what others are creating. I like the fact that my artwork is unique and my process organic and unconventional.  I am not sure about overexposure, but I think we are surely in a time of different artistic marketing. I love that my artwork could be seen by anyone anywhere in the world at anytime and I like being able to easily connect with other artists with comparable passions. The Petri Dishes are virtually impossible to duplicate. I think that these days I could come very close to creating something very similar, however due to the organic process they would still turn out quite different. 

Donata Marletta: You live in San Francisco, a hub for research in technology, and a city characterised by creativity and open-mindedness. How does the social context influence and inspire your creative process? 

Klari Reis: My location has influenced my drive to be different artistically. Walking on the street, I tend to not stand out much. However, my artwork is my chance to make a bold statement. San Francisco and all of Silicon Valley have a strong start up, invent, work hard ethos. While I am not in the computer technology industry these values seem to be in the air of the local culture.

Donata Marletta: Are you currently working on new projects or experimenting with new techniques?

Klari Reis: I am currently working on a new relationship and show with a Chinese gallery and loving working with The Cynthia Corbett Gallery on their upcoming fairs and exhibitions. With Cynthia, I am hoping to have work for her Summer show in London, but then also Art Miami in December. I am always working on Petri Dish paintings, but currently developing an exciting new body of work on paper and panel.