I Am Maneuvering With Difficulty

Angela Willetts | Embark Gallery

August 25 – September 16
Opening Reception Friday, August 25, 6-9pm


the land meets the sea, there is a fort. At the boundary
between stubborn rock and ever-changing water, there was need
for division and protection. Walls were built.
Rules and languages were created. And as long as
the rules were followed, everyone was safe.

those who lived on land longed for the movement
of waves, and those on the water felt their bodies reaching
for stillness, but found their tongues unable to speak this yearning
in the languages they had acquired. And so they pressed their
bodies to the walls and poked their tongues into the cracks. Occasionally,
a brick or two came loose.

that the walls would not crumble, people learned to scale them. They cobbled
together objects at hand, building ramshackle scaffolds and beautiful pidgin languages.
Nothing was perfect. Nothing fit well. Nothing
stayed in place for long. Everybody belonged and nobody belonged. Some days
this felt unbearable. Some days the freedom of flux was exhilarating. But
the memory of the fortress resided, still, within them.

I Am Maneuvering With Difficulty addresses the history of the Fort Mason military site and the semiotics of naval codes. In researching Fort Mason’s history and following conversations with National Park Service historians, Angela Willetts’ explorations of the defunct military base led her to consider how the psychology of fear and defense systems currently operate within her own life. Borrowing military strategies and languages, her work underscores themes of vulnerability and protection through task-based performances, drawings, and handmade, site-specific flags.

The notion of the fortress is central to the exhibition as both a site of self-protection and a signal of internal vulnerability and instability. Forts define the identity of national and military sites; however, for Willetts, they might also occupy the gray area between the institutional and the personal, the domestic, and the maternal. Within her handmade fort—painted in the World War I-era style of dazzle camouflage—Willetts takes on a cavalcade of personas from mother and child to glam rockstar, exploring the role of defense strategies within identity-construction and family relationships. In another video, she assembles an unwieldy escape raft in her living room. As the raft comes together, it grows unmanageably large, inconveniencing everyone and impeding her family’s attempts to sit, eat, and spend time together. A voiceover from a military survival manual dramatizes her solitary attempts at endurance and protection, drawing parallels between approaches to armed conflict and personal experiences of self-preservation.  

Other works soften and repurpose military languages as the framework for poetry. Utilizing phrases found in the International Code of Signals—an alphanumeric maritime directory for flag semaphore—Willetts wrote short poems on the frustration of communicating one’s needs and emotions within a romantic relationship. These poems, in the Dada tradition of borrowed language, are both humorous and sly, yet trapped in the utilitarianism of ship captains’ signals for aid. I am caught in thick fog and Where shall I anchor? become personal articulations of need, proclamations for distressing times. The phrases are translated to the abstract geometries of semaphore flags, displayed in the gallery as well as outside it, along flagpoles and lampposts on the Fort Mason campus. The material of the flags, sewn from used clothes into patchwork composites, creates a domestic conduit of militancy. The clothes act as both individual boundary and armor surrounding the body. Sewn together as flags, they become repositories of collective identity, an archive of skins shed, and an amalgam of communal defenses abandoned.

To accompany the exhibition, the maritime poems are collected alongside overlaid images of the flags to which they refer in a new publication from National Monument Press: Relationships. Language is perhaps its own fortress, as is particularly true for the direct and unambiguous phrases of international maritime signals. Borrowed here, they are subverted to speak about vulnerability and the search for love. Painted in layers over one another in simultaneous and chaotic communication rather than in series, they allow new images and meanings to emerge from the confusion of information. 

Angela Willetts received her Bachelors degree from the University of Cambridge (UK), and recently completed her MFA at the University of California, Davis. Originally from Great Britain, Willetts has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last eighteen years where she has shown extensively. Willetts earned graduate fellowships for both the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Headlands Center for the Arts, and is the recipient of the Robert Arneson Award, the Mary Lou Osborn Award, and a UC Davis & Humanities Graduate Research Award. She has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Post Contemporary.

Embark Gallery is pleased to present Willetts as one of three inaugural artists of R&D Projects, a series of research-intensive postgraduate fellowships and summer solo exhibitions. With this program, we are extending our support of emerging MFA artists to their postgraduate careers by offering graduated artists who have previously shown with Embark the opportunity to develop new scholarly and investigative projects in partnership with local nonprofits. I Am Maneuvering With Difficulty was produced in conversation with National Park Service historians and in partnership with Fort Mason Center for the Arts. The exhibition takes place at Embark Gallery as well as around the Fort Mason Center campus, and will be accompanied by the release of Willetts' newly-published book Relationships from National Monument Press.

Artist Website

Embark Gallery
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture
2 Marina Blvd., Bldg. B, Ste. 330
San Francisco, CA 94123

Gallery Hours
Saturdays and Sundays 12 – 5pm or by appointment from August 25 – September 16

Press Preview
Thursday, August 24, 10 am – 5 pm [by appointment]

Press Contact
Christopher Squier, christopher@embarkgallery.com