Bill Powers led the Final Five into the woods. China Chow, draped in earth-toned cloak, presented them to “Nature herself” and gave instructions to incorporate something they found, something “without a pulse,” into their works. She also mentioned that this task would take down two more artists and leave the three for the Grand Challenge that would determine the winner.

Nicole exulted. Peregrine peregrinated. Abdi prayed. Jaclyn groused. Miles meditated about his childhood a couple of episodes too late.

This time, though, there was a “true work of art” at the end. Abdi’s life-sized or larger charcoal self-portrait, a reclining figure in glistening blacks and shining whites was simply stunning. The fact that his earth material—black pebbles he ground up and mixed with charcoal—was not directly in evidence was sensibly never brought into the discussion. The figure levitated, buoyed by energy and the illusion of water. Abdi spoke of “baptism” and feeling that his art was “reborn” with this challenge. I thought of so many things, Christs entombed, medieval tomb effigies, Symbolist narcoleptics, metaphors of earth and flesh and memory.

Works from Nicole and Jaclyn were deemed failures. Peregrine moved ahead although I don’t know why. One wonders if The Jury, knowing that Miles and Abdi were a given, felt that they needed an artist whose style and approach to materials provided maximum contrast.

I liked what turned out to be Jaci’s Last Hurrah; at least I liked what I thought I saw through the television screen. Jaclyn brought together in a corner a pair of roseate composite landscape photographs, expanses of water and a smudge of landform at the horizon. Out in front, approximately at eye-level, she installed a copper pipe echoing the horizon line of the landscapes. A medium-sized rock studded with mica and attached to a flat brass circlet hung from the pipe. The chromatic harmonies were quite beautiful. The rock both asserted gravity and denied it.

Bill Powers said it was “distant, cold and left us stranded.” I didn’t exactly disagree.

The work was distant and cold, like the Nature that Jaclyn confronted. It left the viewer stranded, searching for connection just as she struggled in that place. Nature can be an austere and frightening place. Her melancholy and sense of isolation, the feeling of being a body under attack, was channeled into imagery that, for once, was not restricted to her surface self. The feeling of the piece was rather Romantic in a 19th century German, Caspar David Friedrich kind of way.

For once Jaclyn did not appropriate a post-modern language with which she was familiar but searched for an original syntax. Thank heavens Nicole and Peregrine did not allow her to weasel around the rules of the game and use a photograph of herself taken back at the residence. The art she created was for me economical in means and compelling in expression. Had she not fallen back on the idea of “freedom,” a word that is both trite and meaningless and also a refrain from past work that is becoming an intellectual albatross, the work might have received more positive response.

Miles was similarly discomfited by the experience in the woods. He found a velvety ruffle of fungus, sort of a shelf-fungus type that set him thoughts of decay and death.

But how might that become part of a work of art?

Back in the studio, after abandoning the seriously stupid idea of making mustard gas, something counter-productively lethal, he settled on a plan to burn patterns into ordinary brown paper with bleach. He built a frame, stretched plastic across it and punctured the plastic. Bleach dripped through the holes creating milky, puckered patterns.

In an effort to impose a pattern on the drips—order onto chaos per Challenge 8—Miles built a lever contraption. A circle cut from plywood was marked with a grid and the tips of screws poked through in a geometric pattern. With Abdi’s help that awful weapon was raised then lowered onto a much larger, plastic-covered frame so that the screws produced holes in the same pattern. Bleach poured onto the plastic dripped erratically as Miles tried to keep it from pooling in one place. His installation included the framed drip painting, a digital photo print of the fungus, and the fungus itself on a small shelf. A coconut mat encouraged viewers to come up close and examine fungus, simulacra, and the work it inspired.

The Jury and guest judge Michele Oka Doner liked it. So did I.

In the novel Lost Illusions (1839) by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), an “illustrious writer” in Paris opines to the young poet newly arrived from the provinces, “What is art, sir, but Nature concentrated?” Indeed, what.