Tom Molloy’s choice of topical subject matter—U.S. economic dominance, the war in Iraq, the death penalty, suicide bombers—leads us to a sharp examination of this country’s moral dilemmas. And because Molloy (b. 1964) is Irish, his intensely critical focus on American politics takes on additional import, nudging viewers to come to terms with an outsider’s impression of U.S. power.

This midcareer survey at the Aldrich, organized by independent curator Joseph Wolin, presents Molloy’s meticulously drawn images and even more painstakingly fashioned cut-paper compositions. Map (1999) features diminutive silhouettes of the world’s landmasses, sliced out of a single dollar bill so exactingly that even the tiny islands near Australia are distinct. For Crown (2005), Molloy took the infamous image of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib—draped in a pointed hood and cloak with wires dangling from his arms while standing on a box—and turned it into a circle of six miniature paper dolls. Allegiance (2004) comprises 50 individually framed drawings, each depicting an embroidered star with every thread and shadow revealed. The one-note critique latent in these images is offset by the faithfulness of the representation, which enriches the work’s overall effect—astonishing viewers with the artist’s skill rather than simply assaulting them with his opinions.
Many of the drawings serve as memento mori, most notably the “Self-Portrait” series (2001-02) of five X-ray-like images of the artist’s skull, rendered in precise detail. Dead Texans (2002) consists of 100 drawings of men executed in Texas while George W. Bush was governor there. It is impossible to look at these faces, drawn to the scale of passport photos, and not feel sympathy for the criminals-turned-victims. To create Graven 4 (2008), Molloy printed out an Internet picture of a suicide bomber’s mother holding up a photograph of her dead son. He then replaced the man’s photo with a hand-drawn replica. The original image, evoking maternal pride and grief, was used as a propaganda tool to promote the glory of the attacker. In Molloy’s treatment, we feel a deeper, less ideological regard for both the mother and the son, uncannily revived by the artist’s touch. Coupling a dry, thoughtful take on current events with remarkable graphic skills, Molloy forces viewers to come to terms with the ambiguity of even the most seemingly black-and-white situations.

Photo: Tom Molloy: Globe, 2004, printed map and thread, approx. 11⁄8 by 11⁄8  by 11⁄8  inches; at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.