In May, 21-year-old visual artist Ashley Metro found herself on a bill with greats like Banksy and Keith Haring at Austin’s SoCo Modern. The new gallery celebrated its opening with the work of 33 contemporary and street artists, including Austin locals like Metro.
“It’s really surreal having people come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my God, your work is right next to a Banksy piece,’” she says.
Metro’s ultra-modern art follows a now-familiar convention of seemingly endless line work and organic abstract shapes. Its uniqueness comes from the sheer volume of visual stimulus. Most of her paintings are in dizzying black and white, but recently, Metro has been sharing work laced with red, and the occasional pop of another primary color. Standing back, the patterns are just a pleasantly numbing texture, but as the eye wanders, additional themes become clear.
Feminine forms emerge, skulls, eyes, and even short phrases. Metro coins the term “abstract ideology,” which gets tucked into her paintings and recently, emblazoned across one as a focal point. It’s the artist’s personal take on a common paradox: We can create anything we can imagine, yet we are limited to what we can perceive. The eyes, she explains, are there to “perceive” the viewer, the way everyone is perceived regardless of whether they choose to be.
Perception has long been a theme in Metro’s work, which initially dealt with the pressure to keep up with social media.
The process behind each painting is clearly meditative, even when watching a piece come together from the outside. Metro refers to the elusive, intoxicating flow state that great artists learn how to enter through creation.
Some patrons who hire Metro to adorn their bodies with painted lines, as she did as a going-out ritual with friends in LA, get an especially intimate experience. The lines follow both the model’s anatomy and the energy flow that Metro perceives during the exchange. Although many of her paintings include phrases like “exit reality,” it’s just another paradox of abstraction.
Describing the energy flow of body painting, Metro says, “I know that might seem like something that is detached from reality to a certain extent, but it makes so much sense from where I’m doing it because it feels like it just flows naturally.”
The utility of the overwhelming line-work style is the opacity of the message. In Metro’s denser works (which she compares to the I Spy and Magic Eye books of the 1990s), a sense of deeper meaning emerges when the viewer is both relaxed and actively engaging. This allows her to smuggle in concepts that viewers in a more defensive mindset tend to write off. She theorizes that audiences today are used to feminist callouts, and even recognized female artists struggle to tell their stories in a way the art world finds palatable.
Although many of the more concrete forms in Metro’s work — a gaunt face, the written question, “What am I worth to you?” — are full of conflict, the viewer has already entered a familiar space just by looking closer at them.
Between gallery openings and chance meetings, Metro is getting noticed and achieving the kind of engagement that brings her work from personal musings to community conversation starters.
One night, Metro was caught graffitiing on LA’s famous Melrose Avenue. Ducking into an alley, she met another street artist, Bandit, who took on a mentor’s role. In turn, he introduced her to Dave Navarro, the legendary guitarist for Jane’s Addiction and an avid supporter of street art.
Metro ended up in Navarro’s kitchen, commissioned to decorate part of the kitchen ceiling in her signature style. The two discussed personal themes that Metro slipped in amid the chaos. Backlit in magenta, the panoramic piece offers endless late-night contemplative gazing.
Even though Metro has proved she’s more than capable of making organic art connections out on the street, she’s come to see some of the benefits that make social media worth keeping up with. Now in Austin again, she has people to keep in touch with. Like many artists on social media, she’s met people with different perspectives on her art, and learned from them.
Going forward, Metro is pursuing other, more personal themes that she’s been developing since high school. One upcoming project focuses on creation and destruction, in a way Metro feels more equipped to prepare now that she knows more collaborators and investors.
“When I do it, you’ll know,” says Metro. “And that’s it.”